With less than a year to go before retirement , and an idea to spend the rest of my life in Europe , I decided to take a ” farewell tour ” of my favorite places in the US. My buddy Jim and I had been batting around the idea of an Isle Royale ( that’s ROY-AL to the uninitiated ) trip. I was looking at my 6th or 7th trip and knew it was doable . We added his son-in-law Kent and started making plans. If you’ve never been to this gem in the middle of Lake Superior , I would strongly suggest you visit. This National Park sees less visitors in a year , than Yellowstone in a day. For wilderness solitude , a backpacker in the Midwest doesn’t have many options. Isle Royale is THE solid choice. I urgently ask that you visit early in the season , or late in the season ; far less people and no bugs.
We immediately reached out to Isle Royale Seaplane and John couldn’t have been more insightful or patient. I have taken the ferry twice , to Houghton and Copper Harbor , and I find it much quicker and easier to fly. Lake Superior can be a very long ride if a storm comes up or if it is windy. The cost of the seaplane justifies getting to the island ahead of the boats and getting on the trail early. John and his partners make it easy and their stories are fun and interesting ; a more hard-working and congenial group would be hard to find. On first impression , it’s easy to see that they love what they do and safety is paramount. I will fly every-time. [ See : isleroyaleseaplanes.com ]
We decided to go the week before Memorial Day , as the island is just opening , and I stuck to my pattern of off-season in the National Parks. All of my preceding trips were done in the last week of September and early October. This trip with Kent and Jim would be my very 1st in the Spring. This outing would also mark the last hurrah for my North Face Snow Leopard pack ; I bought it in Moose Wyoming when I lived in the Tetons in ’86. A formidable pack and I haven’t seen it’s equal , having sold outdoor gear for quite a few years. We met a few times and spent a great deal of time e-mailing , texting , and calling to make sure no stone was unturned in planning. I had learned almost all of my back-country skills from 2 sources. The 1st is trial and error , and the 2nd is from one of my best friends , Jim Rivera. I was here first with him and a few others on a group trip and although it rained the entire trip , we spent 6/7 days on a muddy conveyor belt of laughter. Jim was trained at NOLS and when we met , we couldn’t believe that a couple of knuckleheads from Chicago could be only a few miles apart , stumbling toward ecstasy in the Rockies. Jim was in the Wind River Range for his NOLS training and I was working in the Tetons. Jim became one of my very best friends and I learned how to lead from the back , fine tuned my map and compass prowess and shared a back-to-the-soul brotherhood that only backpacking provides. In the end , it all comes down to planning , a learned skill from Jim Rivera also.
Jimmy and I had been friends for almost 10 years and kept saying , ” we have to do a trip together ” forever. We were both working 50+ hours a week and had kids that were in that special 16 to 22 age group. It demands a bushel full of time and attention. Now , his kids are married and mine are in there mid-20’s and we decided to go for it. I had some initial apprehensions , as I had never even car-camped with Jimmy , or Kent for that matter and I had no way of vetting them or checking into the possibility that he could be in some way “sandbagging”. In my group of outdoor friends , sandbagging goes both ways ; you’re either hiding the fact that you don’t know shit about the wilderness and back-country behavior , OR , you are very humble and teachable. Our group landed in the latter camp. At nearly 59 years old , I am still willing to learn what I can when a challenge arises and/or someone else has an idea.
You don’t have to live in the Midwest to appreciate a wilderness like Isle Royale. It is the most unique wilderness in this part of the continental US , with all due respect to Boundary Waters . With pressure from mining and logging in Minnesota , it is only a matter of time before BWCA is tainted and spoiled. No politics here , just a scary trend.
When Jimmy , Kent and I landed on Isle Royale , we were like 3 kids in a large outdoor candy store. Each of us walking in a different direction to follow our eye. There is a lot to see in Washington Harbor , but we headed to the Store , which wasn’t quite stocked yet ; but there was enough fuel and small items that we planned on getting there ; fuel being the major item , as the seaplanes can’t/won’t fly if you have fuel in your pack – it’s an FAA thing.
Rain was light and constant as we began our walk to Island Mine , our 1st campsite , and a short 6.5 miles on a steady up toward Mt. Desor. The rain sang a soft percussive tune as the drops fell from leaf to leaf on their way to the ground. We were steady on , and stopped after the 1st hour on the trail to water and have a snack. One of my learned rules of thumb is the group can only move as fast as the slowest person. We stop every hour , on the hour , to get the packs off and replenish for about 15 minutes. I makes the whole experience easier to take for most ; heck I’ve used this method with my wife and kids in Glacier on the Bowman to Kintla hike. I never heard a peep out of them. It also affords you a chance to walk around for a few minutes and look and listen without worrying where your next step is. We reached Island Mine with little struggle and the promise of better weather , as the rain had stopped and we began to see patches of blue through the green canopy.
Having emptied my pack , I was in distress ; somehow I had forgotten to repack the fly for my Mountain Hardware Trango. I let it go and hoped that the forecast would hold and we would have clear weather for the next 3 or 4 days. We had planned our trip to be in shelters on the back half of our adventure. The next day , Sunday , we would have a relatively ” light day ‘ to Lake Desor South with a 5.5 mile walk. My plan was for us to ease into the rough up and down of the Minong leg and our trek back across to Daisy Farm on the South side of the island. We settled into camp-life early , another advantage to short hops early in the trip , and relaxed knowing we were some of the few here. Almost immediately after setting up their hammocks , Kent started talking about eating. I looked at Jimmy and said ” for cryin’ out loud , this guy’s like a termite in a lumber yard “. That stuck and he has been christened and known as ” The Termite “. A tall and sinewy young man , he has an easy-going , affable nature that belies his work ethic. He represents the best of our youth , enterprising and open to seeing opportunity in everything. Adding to his qualities , he knows outdoor gear and is curious about what works and what doesn’t.
Kent’s Father-in-law , and one of my best friends , Jimmy , is a life-long tradesman . I couldn’t find someone who enjoys being outside as much as Jim. Dedicated to his family and the straightest shooter you will ever talk to. We are both balding as we approach 60 and we have names like ” Big Fuzzy ” , ” Fur-Bag “…etc. It’s all in good fun , and Jim’s easy-going nature always made it simple to solve little problems on the trail.
Our 2nd day out was our hike to Lake Desor South campground. It was an comfortable , cool start , about 50F by the time we hit the trail. Most of the up portion of our trip was behind us , as we ascended from Windigo past Sugar Mountain ( 1,362ft ) , and we wouldn’t gain much more to Mt. Desor ( 1,394ft ). We stopped along the way for our breaks at openings in the trees and always marveled at the vastness of the lake below. The Termite eyed a grand view with his camera , and we slung our packs on for the next one hour hike.
Something that must be pointed out , for the new visitor , is that when using the Greenstone Ridge , all campgrounds are below. That means that every day starts with a hike up. This was the topic of conversation as we descended to Lake Desor. We were early , and it seemed like the whole campground was ours. The lake was calm and the low lapping of the water at the shore calmed us as we decided to set up. I had made the decision to sleep under the stars , as Big Fuzzy and the Termite secured their hammocks to the various twin Birch trees surrounding our site. We ate an early dinner and took our sleeping pads and camp chairs down to the lake to relax.
Over the course of two or three hours , we covered the whole of the earth. Topics from philosophy to history , and beyond. It was a lazy time , soaking up the golden rays of a sun direct from Eden. We gazed up , three heads turned aloft , to begin a futile effort counting stars. I broke the silence by declaring that we had a long day ahead next , and I was sure I wasn’t going to get much sleep. I knew from past experiences sleeping under the night sky , that I would be awake and asleep fitfully. It would be a battle between wanting to see the stars , possibly the northern lights , and getting much needed rest. I was right ; I fell asleep around 8:30/9 and awoke to the pitch darkness around and the grand glowing lights above. There was no sign of the aurora borealis , but the stars were as close as I’ve ever seen them. I slowly fell into REM-sleep , and came to open my eyes again at 2:15 in the morning to a sky with a dark indigo background and the tiniest of blinking whitish dots. I knew we had a long hike ahead of us in a few short hours, but I couldn’t take my eyes from the star-lit scrim above me. I heard the lake rubbing softly on the shore where we sat just a few hours ago, and I heard the shuffling of a moose in the trees around us. The wind blew very softly, as if to not awaken us from our Lake Superior slumber. Slowly my eyelids fell over the twinkling ceiling. I was roused by birds tussling in the birch trees behind me and the sky was rosy with the coming sunrise: the receding last morning-stars faded as I lay still, waiting for the Termite or Jimmy to stir. It was a “laying meditation” as I never blinked skyward, suspending myself in the soft breeze of a new day. I knew that at any time now I would move and continue to do so until later today.
I slid out of my sleeping bag, like a moth wriggling from a cocoon and felt all of the 35/40F cold. I was snug in my 20 year-old zero bag , even without a bivy bag, and every hair stood on end in the Desor breeze. My old MSR Dragonfly stove was still leaking fuel and I turned to Kent’s Jet-Boil for breakfast. I am a firm believer after this trip. We planned to have both stoves, and it was a good move. I could only appease my Dragonfly to work from time to time by sealing the split in the plastic exchanger with rubber cement. The Jet Boil had hot water in less than half the time of my traditional backpacking stove. We laughed as the Termite continued on about the dinosaurs and such. I never once had a problem with that old stove and it worked perfectly at home for 4 or 5 days in a row before we left. It’s always best to have a back-up plan, the Jet Boil supplanted the old MSR for the rest of the trip…this was a “farewell trip” anyway.
With everything packed, laces tied tight, and water replenished, we bid adieu to Lake Desor. Termite took the lead as we headed for the steep uphill climb out of the campground, and decided to not focus on the 11.5 +/- hike we had in store for us. Our legs stronger than the day before, but Jim and I were pushing each other to move up the angled trail. The Termite neither struggled nor stopped as we kept looking up for the trail marker, which would signal the top.