My daughter stared, wide eyed, as I lay between the rocks. My hiking boots had fallen to pieces two days previous, leaving me with the options of hauling my over-heavy pack across mud and rock either in flip-flops or barefoot. The only place to get new boots lay at the end of the trail, near where our ferry would be leaving first thing in the morning, and now a misstep left me on the ground with a rolled ankle early in the day’s hike in the most remote national park in the lower 48.
Our third day on the island dawned clear and sunny, a continuation of the perfect weather that had preceded it. We saw no rain at all, in fact, except for a gale that blew across Lake Superior during our ferry back to the mainland, but this would be a day full of mud as we trekked through swampy areas of the island. I got everything ready to cook our morning meal. Ali chose pancakes- I had two breakfasts worth of mix portioned out, so I grabbed the first and mixed per the directions while heating up the stove. I realized, though, that I had nothing to prevent sticking, nor was the stove getting hot enough, so the picture-perfect pancakes that I’d envisioned turned into a sticky mush. After the long hike the day before, Ali forgot any pretenses of picky eating and ate her share quickly, exclaiming that it was wonderful and asking for more. I gave her some of mine, made sure the water bottles were full, and we headed out to the trail, back toward Threemile.
My boots were falling apart, and this day did them in; not only had the soles separated to the extent that I had to cut them off, but the toes were starting to lift as well in a way that was bound to cause some quick and brutal blisters so I made the executive decision to take them off for good. I dumped the grocery bag I’d brought along for dirty clothes into my pack, put the ruined, muddy boots in it, and tied it to the side of my pack. I will freely admit that I did so reluctantly- I would have been much happier throwing them as hard and as far as I could into the woods or perhaps setting them on fire, but somehow that’s not in keeping with the Leave No Trace principles on the island so, insult to injury, I had to carry the heavy things for the rest of the trip. I put on my camp shoes, a cheap pair of flip-flops, and we moved on.
Much of the trail from Daisy Farm to Threemile was covered with a thick, oozy mud, which may have been exacerbated by a storm that had blown through the Saturday before but was mostly due to this part of the island being low-lying and its proximity to the lake. Some of the worse places had rocks through the middle to hop across, while in others, the mud could be sidestepped- there were bound to be areas, though, where there would be no choice but to slog right through.
We reached one of those soon enough, and with an audible “SHLOOP,” my right flip-flop disappeared into the mud.
“Oh, no, no, no,” I heard myself saying as I leaned down to dig it out before I could lose sight of it completely, which would leave me totally out of usable shoes. Of course at this point the boots, which I had come to see as having their own distinct evil personality, swung forward and nailed me directly on the temple, nearly leaving me sprawled in the mud.
My seven-year-old learned some new words at that point. She watched amazed as I stomped and stormed and howled, flinging mud every which way. The trail was swampy as far as I could see, so shoes were becoming an impossibility, unless I was willing to risk losing them permanently. I stuck the filthy recovered flip-flops in the bag with the boots and continued on barefoot.
“Can I take off my boots too?” asked Ali.
Notwithstanding the swarms of mosquitos now settling on my poor toes, the mud felt rather good. Then I stepped on a sharp rock and erupted in another storm of profanity.
“Better not,” I told her once I recovered my composure.
We walked on, through violent green forest which would abruptly change to the somber gray of rock outcroppings and back. The nearby shoreline was covered with rocks of all different sizes, most of which were rounded and polished by the unsleeping water. I couldn’t envision even the largest of them as boulders- they looked like enormous pebbles, grown by some fantastic Alice in Wonderland potion.
“Shh,” said Ali, interrupting my musings with a warning arm extended. She had been leading our expedition since the time we separated from Caitlin, our hiking buddy of day one, with only the most necessary corrections from me if I thought we were about to lose the trail. She pointed to the left of the trail, and I caught a glimpse of a garter snake disappearing into the brush. She beamed at me, and in the middle of this crazy northern forest with my aching, dirty feet, I remembered why we were there. Her excitement and pride were palpable. She had also been borrowing the phone periodically- we were way out of range of any signals or networks, but after spending a small fortune on it, I brought it along for the camera feature- to take pictures of cool looking bugs and butterflies along the trail. Mostly bugs, which warmed my heart. Butterflies are easy to like, with their bright colors and light touch. Other insects take a little more patience to scuttle into favor. Her prize photo was of a beautiful emerald green and black ground beetle, which she found crawling across the trail in a drier spot and guarded jealously to ensure that I didn’t accidentally step on it.
We reached camp at a reasonable hour- no ten hours on the trail this time- and got the best shelter in the campground, a little outside of the main grounds with a beautiful view of the lake and a perfectly sloped rock face down to the water where we dozed in the sun on the warm rock with our feet in the waves. Eventually I got out the stove to start dinner. My stove was fantastic, if you happened to be a bodybuilding three-toed sloth. Ok, I know that simile was a stretch, but I liked the mental image- point is, it was bulky, heavy, and slow, better suited for car camping or for keeping catering items the lukewarm that food safety experts freak out about. It took about 20 minutes to boil water, but eventually we got there, and had freeze-dried chicken and rice that Ali raved about.
(In case anyone is interested, I did a Google search for “bodybuilder sloth.” Found a bodybuilder squirrel and an astronaut sloth, but I suppose bodybuilding does go against the core values of slothiness.)
The next day was our last full one on the island, and the plan was to go from Threemile to the Rock Harbor campsite, from where we would leave in the morning on our ferry back to the mainland. It was important to be there on time- if we missed the Saturday morning ferry, it would be Wednesday before the next, and we had nowhere near enough food to make it that long. There’s a small combination grocery and gift shop by the harbor, but the food is expensive and money tight, so it was a poor option. We said goodbye to our beautiful campsite at Threemile and hit the trail after another meal of pancake mush (by request) and headed on toward the harbor. Just like the trail to Threemile was muddy, this one was predominantly rocky, and posed a whole new challenge to my inadequate footwear, that being the issue of tread. Cheap flip-flops have no tread. It’s absurd to imagine that they would. I considered taking them off again, but with the terrain rough enough to hurt my feet through them, there was no way I would get very far without them.
I wobbled a few times and caught my balance; less than a mile into our three-mile trek, though, I lost my balance and fell hard, rolling my ankle in the process. I lay there for a few minutes, unmoving, waiting for the throbbing to subside. Ali stared at me, dumbstruck.
“Are you okay, mommy?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. I unbuckled my pack and rolled out of it. My options were limited- mainly, keep hiking. I could lay there waiting for someone to come by who could possibly tell a ranger if they happened to see one, but that seemed even less appealing than hiking on an injured ankle. After a little while longer, I got to my feet and buckled the pack back on. Maybe it was adrenaline, or maybe a delayed reaction, but the ankle didn’t hurt too badly until we reached our destination of Rock Harbor and dropped our packs. We walked down to the camp store for some well-deserved ice cream sandwiches then had dinner in the harbor restaurant- I chose the local favorite, a whitefish sandwich with a beer, while she opted for grilled cheese and lemonade- and by the time we finished eating, my ankle was so stiff that it was difficult to hobble back to camp to set up our tent for the final night. I set up the tent, with Ali’s help, and crawled right in, daylight be damned. I brought along a single pillow on the trip which was for Ali; it was a major concern of mine that she be comfortable on the trail, since like any first-time trip, it could shape her perceptions of backpacking trips to come. Up to this point, she had slept on the pillow every night, and while I had thought about asking her for it to elevate my ankle, I had decided instead to use the stuff sack of clothes and leave the pillow to her. I lay down on my sleeping bag, prepped an instant ice pack, and was about to arrange the stuff sack when Ali popped her head into the tent.
“You can use my pillow,” she offered, then came and lay down next to me to work on her coloring book and keep me company. I couldn’t help but smile. Parenting is as tough as backpacking, full of pitfalls and problems and missteps. Whether or not I’ve done anything right, I know at least that she’s turning out okay; although she has whiny moments and an obnoxious habit of singing only a couple lines of songs over and over, she has a loving heart which she is willing to share with the world. She gives me hope.
We made it to the ferry the next morning, and began the long journey home. Six hours across Lake Superior awaited us, then another dozen hours in the car, which would take us home to hot showers and comfortable beds. As we sat on the ferry, though, surrounded by new friends, I realized that I’d miss the island. For all the pain in my ankle, the long hikes, the slow stove and the chore of filtering water, I loved it all. The gorgeous northern woods of Isle Royale, the pristine water, the view from Mount Ojibwe, they all came home with me, and will live in my mind until I can return for another round. The island won this time.
Next time, I’ll just be better prepared.