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.