Isle Royale National Park: The Amazing Race

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan. Click to enlarge.

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan. Click to enlarge.

“Royale” is pronounced “Royal.”  This is a road-less, car-less island in Lake Superior.  The only access is by boat or seaplane.  I rode in on the Park Service’s very own Ranger III, one of the slowest boats on the water.  The boat itself is quite capable, but the Service runs it at half speed to conserve fuel.  This gives passengers a thrilling 5 ½ hour voyage and ensures that there won’t be enough daylight to hike very far on the day they arrive.  But the ticket is cheap.

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, MI. Click to enlarge.

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, MI. Click to enlarge.

During the ride a tall, affable ranger named Paul gave a shamelessly half-assed speech about the Leave No Trace principles.  He then sang us a song while playing his own guitar and read a poem he had composed about the park.

The park is built for backpackers, with foot trails spreading across the island in every direction.  On the first night nearly all of the 40+ boat passengers stayed at a campground located 3 miles from the dock.  So much for the park’s claim to a “premier wilderness experience.”

The general idea was to find an un-crowded campground and get there early enough to claim one of the coveted cabin-type shelters.  Tent sites were always available as a last resort.  Though I tended to walk faster than everyone else, I got sidetracked eating the various wild berries along the trails.  I was thus one of the last arrivals in camp on the first night, but somehow managed to get the nicest campsite.  One young couple even came by to tell me they envied my site and had looked at it themselves sometime earlier.  Why didn’t they take it?

Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

I started behind again the next morning, having slept in.  I hit the trail around 10 am and headed for what I hoped would be a secluded area.  Again, berries and other attractions slowed me down.  Upon arrival at the lake some 10 miles down the trail I met a fellow Coloradoan.  He was a self-described ski bum and a refugee from a high-pressure construction management job in Chicago.  He fished while I rested sore feet.  I hadn’t backpacked in years, and my pack was too heavy.  Chris landed several small pike and told me about his work at the ski slopes and kids’ summer camps that supported his lifestyle in Aspen.  He preferred to create a way to enjoy his outdoor passion full time rather than live in the “suffer and escape” cycle of his peers.

Chris was a typical example of the demographic attracted to Isle Royale: fit and skilled in the outdoors.  “The people who come here aren’t the average national park visitor,” he said.  One tip from Chris that I am eager to try is walking poles.  He says they save his knees, feet, and back and make walking long distances more pleasant.

The next day I set out to traverse 6 miles of Greenstone Ridge, the hogback that runs the length of the island.  Early on I met a couple from Minnesota heading in the opposite direction.  I wanted to dump some weight.  I gave them my rain gear and received sausages in return.  The man said he felt like a white settler trading with the natives back in the old days.  My body felt unusually tired but I kept going.  I was here to test my limits for international adventure travel and had yet to find them.  That would change by evening.

Greenstone Ridge, Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

Greenstone Ridge, Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

After a 10-mile day in total, I strolled into camp with sore feet, aching Achilles tendons, and an intermittently screaming knee.  Luckily, a doctor happened to walk by my shelter.  “Have some Tylenol to knock out the inflammation, and stay off your feet for a while,” he said.  “On your way back to the Harbor, take the Tobin trail instead of the Rock Harbor trail.  It’s much easier on your joints.”  With that he was off, and the interaction reminded me of seeing a doctor in an office setting.  When I went to filter water to take my anti-inflammatories, another guy asked if I was limping.  “Yes,” I said, and told him the story.  He told me to go lie down.  This campsite was full of caring souls just when I needed them.

Ranger Paul had told us about the brazen foxes on the island, and the next morning I got to play with one.  I walked up to him as he was digging.  Upon seeing me he darted a short distance away.  I turned around and went the opposite direction, and he chased after me.  And so it went for a few rounds.  This was the largest and most colorful fox I have ever seen.  Another fox stole my friend Chris’ belt the day before.  The island also features moose, wolves, and snakes.  I saw several snakes and one wolf for a moment, but no moose.  The night before our return to civilization a young European couple had their tent trampled by a moose.  Fortunately they were away at the time.

Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

Isle Royale National Park, MI. Click to enlarge.

Given how beat up I was from the previous day, I was concerned about the upcoming 7.4 mile hike to the harbor.  I was prepared to abandon my roughly 50-pound pack if I needed to.  Two other guys, before setting out ahead of me, agreed to watch for my arrival in base camp.  After limping along for a short while I stretched my leg muscles extensively using a log jutting out of the trail.  From then on everything felt much better, and I walked at my usual pace most of the way in.  I caught up to my new friends and guided them to the easier trail as the doctor recommended.

I arrived on the mainland sore and tired, but was pleased with my body’s performance.  I had walked 32 miles in a few days with a heavy pack on treacherous terrain – all with little training.  I’m eager to see what I can do with better preparation, a lighter pack, and walking poles.

Ford F-150 Plant and Henry Ford Museum, Detroit

Ford Rouge F-150 Plant, Dearborn, MI. Click to enlarge.

Ford Rouge F-150 Plant, Dearborn, MI. Click to enlarge.

Just outside Detroit’s southwestern boundary sits a series of beautiful and sprawling Ford facilities: the Rouge F-150 plant, corporate campuses, and The Henry Ford Museum.  Touring the F-150 plant was interesting, but it did not inspire me to buy a Ford.  The employees (“operators”) dressed ultra-casually in sweat pant cut-offs, t-shirts, and similar outfits.  The plant shuts down entirely for the 30-minute lunch period, and I arrived a few minutes before the ramp up.  I saw some operators sleeping on the floors of partially built trucks.  A manager explained that this is against company policy.  “I wish they wouldn’t do it, but a few of them do,” he said.

Ford Rouge F-150 Factory, Living Roof, Dearborn, MI.  Click to enlarge.

Ford Rouge F-150 Factory, Living Roof, Dearborn, MI. Click to enlarge.

I don’t typically visit museums, but The Henry Ford was well worth it.  I sat in the actual bus and seat that Rosa Parks refused to yield to a white person in the segregation days.  The museum also features every past presidential limousine, including the ones in which Presidents Kennedy and Reagan were shot.  You can see the dent in Reagan’s limousine where the bullet ricocheted before hitting him.

The museum’s theme is to document the evolution of American society, and it is intelligently executed.  Rosa Parks’ bus, for example, is one artifact within the context of a larger exhibit discussing segregation and the civil rights movement.  There is an actual segregated train station waiting room, and visitors can go into the white and black sections to see the difference.

Ford Rouge F-150 Plant, Dearborn, MI.  Click to enlarge.

Ford Rouge F-150 Plant, Dearborn, MI. Click to enlarge.

Much of the country’s story is told through its vehicles, as one might expect given the source.  There are brands other than Ford on display.  In an exhibit discussing the 1970’s energy crisis an early Honda Civic sits near a Dodge Omni.  Upon seeing the Omni I impulsively said, “That looks like a piece of crap.”  A friendly museum official said to me, “When you go to Disneyland everything is fake.  Here, everything is real.”

Detroit Burning: Time to Buy?

Downtown Detroit Sept. 2013

Downtown Detroit Sept. 2013

Intelligent people told me I was taking undue risk in seeking out the most devastated parts of Detroit.  There are 19 photos and I hope you have a minute to look at all of them.  They depict a small amount of the destruction that I saw, but give a thorough flavor for it.  The last one may make you smile.

Burned-down Detroit home. Click to enlarge.

Burned-down Detroit home. Click to enlarge.

The last half of the title is taken from a Realtor’s sign in an abandoned block of the Brightmoor neighborhood.  The houses on either side of the offered property were burned to the ground or otherwise destroyed.  The Realtor sign thus looked utterly absurd in the moment.  At least you would have a quiet street, and you could probably get the adjoining lots for peanuts.  Good luck finding qualified renters.  Arson is so rampant, and the fire department so decimated by budget cuts, that unless a fire imminently threatens another structure the policy is to let it burn.  Firefighters do what they can with broken equipment.

Grave marker in front of abandoned home, Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Grave marker in front of abandoned home, Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Most of Detroit is a miserable jungle of criminals, crumbling buildings, and hard-faced residents.  It was sometimes difficult to distinguish the thugs from regular people.  Everyone’s guard was up all the time.  On the first day I drove from the southwest corner of the city northeast through downtown and into a northern suburb to my hotel.  I thought that at least downtown would be a vibrant area, but it was only somewhat better than everywhere else.  Abandoned and decaying office buildings were plentiful.

Detroit.  Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

I found entire blocks of abandoned houses in various stages of destruction. It was safe enough in the abandoned neighborhoods to park the truck and walk around, even in approaching darkness.  I happened upon a young woman, her face covered by a protective mask, who was cleaning out a trashed house to restore it to service.  I crossed paths with two families who were still living in their homes in otherwise empty blocks.  They sat on the porch in the evening partially to watch for trouble.  Scrappers and dumpers are a problem, and my obvious outsider status stirred suspicion.  No one ever threatened me.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

The fully inhabited parts of the city were scary.  It was typical to drive down a street and see police cars and sometimes an ambulance parked where some crime had just occurred.  The streets teemed with apparent thugs.  Even the people I perceived as benevolent looked at me harshly as if to say, “What the hell are you doing here?”  I locked the doors, stayed in my vehicle and stopped only when I had to.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

On one residential street a rough-looking young man walked toward my vehicle as if to block my path.  As I prepared for confrontation in this most tense moment, he stepped aside and gave me a friendly wave and a nod.  I waved back and kept going.  He was a nice guy after all.  I sense that many good people live in these circumstances because they have no means of escape and perhaps little awareness of the alternatives.  They deserve better.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Burned down home in Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Burned down home in Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Burned down home in Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Burned down home in Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

2nd to last but not least: the sign that inspired the title.  Click to enlarge.
2nd to last but not least: the sign that inspired the title. Click to enlarge.

Detroit, ending on a positive note.

Detroit, ending on a positive note. Click to enlarge.

Cuyahoga National Park, OH

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACuyahoga is a small park whose boundaries are mixed in with the Cleveland Metroparks system.  Located a few miles outside the city, the park features a dense deciduous forest with trees towering a hundred feet high.  An unusually helpful staffer at Metroparks gave me detailed and flawless directions to the one free campsite in the area.

Blue Hen Falls. Click to enlarge.

Blue Hen Falls. Click to enlarge.

Campers are typically cyclists touring the Towpath Trail that runs through the Cleveland metro area.  The tiny campground was full with only 3 tents on the ground including mine.  I went to bed early.  Two other campers woke me up when they walked in two hours later.  I thought I heard them checking out my tent.  Not knowing who I was dealing with, I kept my light off and quietly picked up my knife.  “Hello,” I called out.  A petite girl in her early twenties and her boyfriend returned the greeting.  They were merely getting into their own tent, and quarters were close.  The next morning the young man ripped a loud fart, and the girl voiced her displeasure.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

I didn’t get any photos here.  Sorry for the unbelievable negligence.  This is where former President Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed his first outdoor adventures.  Roosevelt hunted bison here in the 19th century, enduring 7 consecutive days of rain before shooting one.  The Park Service’s historical writings describe Roosevelt as an “inexperienced dude from New York” on this outing.  He established two cattle ranches in the vicinity.  One can still walk to the site of Teddy’s main ranch house, though nothing remains of the structure.  Historians credit Roosevelt’s experiences in this area for ultimately inspiring him to establish the U.S. National Park System.

When I arrived in town traffic was backed up half a mile from the park entrance.  I thought I might encounter thick crowds, but a ranger explained it was just a town parade.  He said the park receives 10% of the visitation at Yellowstone, and this was my experience.  Road traffic was light, and I didn’t see anyone else hiking the trails.

The park is a more colorful version of South Dakota’s famous badlands.  Said color is provided by a distinctive mix of juniper trees, deciduous shrubs, and grasses carpeting the several hundred foot tall dirt mounds and treacherous gullies.  Wild bison abound throughout the park and are easily seen from the road.  I watched herds of large adults shepherding calves small enough to sit in a person’s lap.

Burning coal beds, ignited by lighting or wildfire, were present under some of the dirt mounds into the 1950’s.  The soil is composed of bentonite clay and is known to become extraordinarily slippery and soft following a hard rain.  Substantial rain fell on the area while I was there, and I had no trouble walking the trails or driving the dirt roads.

The Little Missouri River National Grassland borders the park.  Dirt roads of varying difficulty interconnect for miles in all directions.  The area sits atop the famous Bakken shale formation.  Oil and gas wells are scattered throughout the grassland.  Cattle ranches are too.  I found a secluded place to camp off one of the many spur roads in the grassland.  My only neighbors were three flaming gas wells, each a long distance away.

Sand Creek/Tallgrass Prairie Part 3 of 3: Travel Date Nov. 2012

I cross paths with the bison herd no more than 40 minutes from the ranger station.  There are roughly 20 animals grazing and lounging in the center of the trail.  As instructed, I start beating a wide path around them.  I estimate my separation at 50 yards, rather than the recommended 100.  Several of the animals start watching me, and two of them stand up and stare as I pass by them.  After a tense but uneventful moment, I am on my way.  A couple hours later I drag into the parking lot, exhausted.  The parking lot has been packed since my arrival, but I saw only 2 others out hiking.

After wolfing down a bag of raw Brussels sprouts, I head toward home.  On the way I take a detour through the town of Elmdale.  On one side of the street sits an abandoned two-story house, perhaps 1900 square feet, flanked by an ample lawn.  The second story of the house is collapsed into the first, and all the windows are either boarded or visibly broken and clouded from age.  Most of the paint seems to have worn off the exterior, revealing splintered, sagging siding.  A few dustings of chipped white paint accent the otherwise gray and faded wood.  Directly across the street, I observe someone making dinner in an only slightly less dilapidated home.

These are not the prosperous small towns I remember from childhood, when my Dad took me pheasant hunting in farm country.  From eastern Colorado to Eastern Kansas, rural towns are hurting.  The only notable exception is Ness City.  I contemplate how fortunate and grateful I am to be in my given situation.

The small and unbalanced meals I’ve subsisted on for the last 2 days cannot support 13 miles of hiking, and by the time I pull into the Pizza Hut in McPherson I am desperately hungry.  The restaurant is run by high school kids who demonstrate an impressive degree of professionalism, organization, and hustle.  Other diners stare at me as I rapidly consume large amounts of pizza from the buffet.  Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I cut the feast short and hit the road.

Pulling into Goodman State Fishing Lake for the second time in as many days, I notice a shiny white Chevy pickup with its hood open.  Approaching to offer assistance, I find the truck abandoned.  Again, I have the whole lake to myself.

Early on Thanksgiving morning I pull onto the highway for the last few hours’ drive home.  One of the towns just inside the Colorado border has a large display of Christmas decorations, and I stop to look closer.  There are waist-high painted wooden sculptures, trees with ornaments, lights.  Several signs list the businesses that sponsored the setup.  The area does not look dilapidated, it looks prosperous.  This is more like it, I think to myself.  A few hours later I was home, enjoying Thanksgiving with my family.

Sand Creek/Tallgrass Prairie Part 2 of 3: Travel Date Nov. 2012

The first hour into Kansas is more of the same:  idle, brown, deserted short grass prairie occasionally punctuated by a few sagging buildings with chipping paint.  Shortly before dark I arrive in Ness City, an oasis of bustling civilization that I seemed to have left behind forever ago.  It is a small town, but the streets are bustling with cars and people.  The main street is paved entirely with red cobblestones from one end of town to the other.  There are hotels and restaurants, but I decide to make camp at Goodman State Fishing Lake 7 miles south of town.

After setting up camp in the dark the preceding night, I awake to find a lake perhaps 100 yards across ringed with brown grass that towers over my head.  I wonder if this is what awaits me at the Preserve later today.  I had the lake to myself for the entire stay; not bad for free admission.  I drive back to Ness City through green farmland.  A number of commuters are heading to work at the various ag-related businesses.  A short, muscular man and I waived to each other as he stood in the parking lot of a tractor repair facility.  Everyone waves here, and the town feels safe and friendly.

Approaching Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, my primary destination, I stop at a gas station.  An adjoining restaurant is shuttered and out of business.  The cashier is a young blonde woman over 6 feet tall.  I can’t help but notice her wedding ring, as it is one of the biggest and showiest I have seen anywhere.

A week before my trip, I spoke to an enthusiastic young ranger over the telephone who confirmed that the preserve would be open for me 24/7.  He seemed eager for people to experience the park under his charge.  We talked about the proposed cuts to the National Park Service budget.   He thanked me for coming to the Preserve and urged me to “keep showing up” to parks around the nation, as that is their best lobbying.

A different ranger helps me get oriented upon arrival.  He warns me about the aggressive bison herd, from which I should stay at least 100 yards at all times.  The Preserve’s boundary is drawn in the shape of a t-square, 7-12 miles long on each side.  I hike a combination of several trails to form a loop approximately 13 miles long.  The grass, conspicuously, is only knee high in most places.  The ranger says this is due to the drought now several years on.