Twelve years since my last time backpacking, I decided to introduce my seven-year-old to the art by spending 5 days in the backcountry of beautiful, rugged Isle Royale. I underestimated the island, and I could only hope I didn’t overestimate myself as badly.
My first clue should have been the comment of the Ranger who hefted my pack to load it into the ferry that first morning.
“Oof,” he grunted, squinting at me. “This is heavy.”
I couldn’t argue that point; that said, neither could I think of any way to lighten the pack. Let’s leave hindsight aside for now: everything seemed quite correct and necessary, but my pack still topped fifty pounds. I kept spare clothes to a minimum and packed multi-use items, like the solar-powered combination floodlight and phone charger that weighed probably about two pounds by itself and stopped working. A daypack also somehow made the cut, although I planned no day hikes. I have- which I hope to change to I had- always subscribed to the “better safe than sorry” theory which led to all of this ridiculousness, but somehow in all of it I managed to pack a minimum of food and absolutely no snacks, except for some protein bars which also doubled as lunches. The pack hadn’t felt too terrible as I carried it down to the dock, so I reasoned that I would get used to the weight quickly enough. We boarded the ferry, and said goodbye to Michigan as it disappeared into the distance while we motored out into the enormity of Lake Superior.
On the ferry, we were asked to fill out tentative itineraries.
“We understand that things can happen and plans can change,” said the Ranger doing the announcements. “But we need to have a general idea of where you will be.”
I opened my map and began to plot out our route. A few tables away, I heard a woman addressing a group. “Can anybody guess which is the most remote national park in the Lower 48?” she asked.
“This one,” I volunteered. She heard, turned and nodded. It’s understandable. Stuck in the middle of icy, unpredictable Lake Superior, it can only be reached by boat or by seaplane and it’s just as rugged as it is isolated. The two mile spur from the Threemile campsite to the top of Mount Franklin- really, any route up to the Greenstone Ridge- with its rough terrain and significant elevation gain feels like a marathon, especially considering that it’s only part of a longer route.
On the map, I traced a route from the dock at Rock Harbor to the Threemile campsite via the Tobin Harbor Trail (3.7 miles), across the ridge to Lane Cove (4.6 mi), back up the ridge and over to Daisy Farm (6.9 mi), and then back to Rock Harbor (7.1 mi) in time to leave for home the next morning. Considering the 165 miles or more of trails on the island, this route would only touch a fraction of its expanse, but it covered a range of elevation and difficulty and seemed more than sufficient for a seven-year-old beginner and someone who hasn’t backpacked in over a decade. Our first day went as planned. We hit the dock and started moving immediately, accompanied by a solo backpacker named Caitlin who we got to know on the six hour trip over. This was part of a larger trip for her, from Arizona to North Carolina, and she planned to hike as much as possible of the island in her week there. When we stopped at Threemile for the night we parted ways, and she continued on; as yet, since there’s no real form of staying in touch on the island aside from old-fashioned face-to-face contact, I have no idea how far she got. If she reads this account, I would love an update, plus to send her a “thank you” for helping get Alison (and me) in the right mindset for our adventure- she kept a steady pace, and taught Ali several things (all of which I was paying attention to as well): how to find trail markers in rocky areas, how to use trees to your advantage for peeing in the wild, and maybe most importantly, one of the great unspoken tenets of backpacking when Ali began to whine:
So why do it, she asked- well, excuse me if I get philosophical for a moment.
Because there are beautiful places on this Earth that can only be reached on foot.
Because it feels good to be strong and engaged with the world when everyone else is sitting around watching TV.
Because the lonely places speak to me in a way that nothing else can.
Because I want my daughter to grow up to be a strong, self-sufficient, fearless woman.
Because I want to conquer.
Because I can.
We reached Threemile, split up, and Ali and I headed on in to the campground. I was sore from the backpack- it was not, in fact, getting easier, and I was glad to drop it by the first shelters while I went on into the campground to scout out somewhere for us to sleep, which I found in a shelter near the crystal clear water of the lake. We didn’t unpack the tent that first night, but just rolled out the sleeping bags and pads and slept in the open air behind the (much needed) mosquito mesh of the shelter. The next morning we headed on up the ridge. The two miles up were a flat couple of inches on the map but with about 250 feet of elevation gain in the last half mile, we tired quickly. Not only did we wear out, but my boots did as well. One thing I had never considered was the fact that my Asolo boots, still looking rather pristine, were old; the sole of the right boot gave out first, which I tried to first duct tape, then to tie together with shoestring and the cord from one of my stuff sacks. Considering this issue and being so tired, we decided to forego the stop at Lane Cove and headed about three miles down the Greenstone Ridge Trail toward the high point of the island at 1133 feet, namely Mount Ojibwe, where we could then turn toward Daisy Farm to camp for the night. Eventually I cut the loose sole off, which I then had to do with the left as well not long after we reached the observation tower of Mount Ojibwe. From Ojibwe the trail was about a mile and a half to the campground, back down the ridge with about a 500 foot elevation loss. Water was already starting to run low at the summit of Mount Franklin, and while we were surrounded by pristine lakes in the distance, none were close enough to cook a meal or refill our water bottles. Ali was tired, hungry, and upset, and though I tried to hide it, so was I; with the water being low, however, we couldn’t consider stopping early for the night. We ate a dry packet of oatmeal each and pushed on. When we finally reached Daisy Farm, we had been ten hours on the trail, and my Fitbit showed over 30,000 steps and nearly 14 miles for the day’s total. We snagged the first available shelter we found, near the back of the campground, and headed down to the lakeside to filter water and in order to finally be able to rest and eat.
On the way back to our shelter, loaded up with deliciously cold water, we spoke to one of the many fellow hikers intrigued by Ali’s age. She’s always happy to have a conversation- our joke goes that she likes people, while I just like trees. The hiker was a 63-year-old named Larry from Kalamazoo who was near the end of spending nearly three weeks in the backcountry, which he said was on his bucket list. He asked what Ali thought of backpacking.
“It’s good,” she said with a strained smile.
We ran into him again the next day, since we were headed the same direction, and after a good night’s sleep she gave the same answer with some more apparent sincerity; by then, though, my own sincerity was lacking, as my boots were quickly becoming a serious issue.
The next day, they finished falling apart.
To be continued…