July 21, Friday
By about noon, my best friend Julie and I have loaded all of the backpacking gear into her car and are leaving Madison, WI for Grand Portage, MN. With stops for gas and food, it’ll take us about nine hours to get to our hotel.
It rains for the first couple hours of the drive, not a real auspicious start for a backpacking trip. The forecast for the weekend doesn’t look that great either, but what can you do.
Things dry out later in the afternoon, although the sun remains hidden by clouds until shortly before the Minnesota border. The drive is uneventful, we start on I90/I94 and then at Eau Claire exit onto 53 towards Duluth.
From there we follow 61 up the coast of Lake Superior. Along the way I experience a new first on the road: a rest stop that is comprised of pit toilets. Better than no toilets at all! The air is definitely cooler up here coming off the lake, and it smells fresh (once you get away from the toilets that is).
Right at 9 pm we pull into Grand Portage Lodge & Casino, at this point we’re less than 40 miles from Canada. This is the only hotel in Grand Portage, and while we’re headed to our room with our backpacks (we still need to do some sorting of gear) a man with a backpack of his own waves us down. We quickly discover we’re taking the same ferry to Isle Royale National Park the next morning. We wish him a goodnight and spend the next couple hours divvying up the gear and trying to get our packs to an equal weight (and preferably under 40 pounds as the ferry charges extra for heavier packs).
For newbies, it’s not an easy task. This will be my first backpacking experience ever, and Julie came to Isle Royale once before, but that was her only backpacking experience and it was when she was in high school, 14 years ago (almost all our gear is borrowed from Julie’s family).
The biggest culprit is food. We’re going to be on Isle Royale eight nights which is longer than the average visit as we anticipate as newbies that we won’t make as good of time as more experienced backpackers. What we don’t fully realize until now is the extra weight we’re going to have to carry in food to accommodate this longer trip will probably be as big a strain on us as carrying less but going farther each day would do. Our food weighs an impressive 35 pounds total.
Why so much food? Pull up a chair, it’s story time.
When Julie came to Isle Royale for that school trip years ago, it was the teacher’s first time organizing such an event. They underestimated the number of calories the ravenous teenagers would need and Julie vividly remembers how hungry she was by the end. They arrived at the ferry point on that last day dreaming of food sold in the little convenience store and gift shop in Windigo… only to find that the store was closed for the season (it being September). The maintenance worker on site took pity on their plight and gave them extra packaged and frozen food that he had, Julie remembers it like a feast.
Not wanting to repeat that experience, we calculate something near 2,500 calories per person per day as recommended by the mighty internet… and hardly have room for the tent. Our packs weigh over 40 pounds (without water yet, mind you), but there’s nothing to be done for it.
July 22, Saturday
The insistent ringing of the alarm pulls me out of bed at 6:30, Julie and I are both tired, having stayed up too late trying to sort the packs. Despite giving ourselves an extra 15 minutes to get ready, we still arrive at the ferry terminal later than recommended. Our new friend from the night before is already waiting, along with two of his friends, a fourth is taking a different ferry from Michigan and is meeting them at Rock Harbor. Julie and I dub them the Ferry Guys, you’ll be hearing more about them later on.
Boarding is a very relaxed affair, our captain has our names on a pencil list, and nothing approaching a scale to weigh our bags. So much for all that stress about trying to keep them under 40 pounds. They get piled on the top of the boat and covered with a tarp to help keep water off them.
Due to scheduling and what days Julie was able to get off work, we’ve opted to take the slower but farther traveling Voyager II ferry to Rock Harbor on the far (northeast) end of the island first, and walk to Windigo on the southwest end, where we’ll get on the faster Sea Hunter II back to Grand Portage.
It’s a seven hour trip to get to our destination, two hours to reach Windigo and then another five to travel along the north edge to Rock Harbor. The scenery is pretty, but it’s a little depressing knowing what takes five hours by boat will take us so many days to cross. The sky is overcast, Lake Superior gloomy. My phone signal disappears shortly after boarding, but the Ferry Guys say the rain isn’t suppose to start until 4 pm… about an hour after we land. They’ve opted to camp tonight at Rock Harbor to avoid hiking in the rain, but Julie and I were planning on going 2.7 miles to Three Mile campground, just to feel like we accomplished something today. We’ll have to wait and see what the weather does.
The Subway sandwiches we picked up in Grand Marais taste mighty good for lunch, our packs are inaccessible while underway. The Voyager II stops at Windigo to drop off passengers hiking on that end of the island, and we all get a mandatory orientation talk on the dock by a ranger. You won’t find this kind of welcome at most national parks, but Isle Royale isn’t like most national parks. Its distance from the mainland makes day trips both expensive and short, the average American has never heard of this place before.
The majority of visitors are backpackers, which means that despite low overall visitation, the number of backcountry permits issued here is impressive – over 90% of the island is a designated wilderness area. Orientation covers things like water filtering requirements, camping rules, and the Leave No Trace policy.
Being a national park, my $80 interagency pass covers admission for Julie and I ($7 a day as of 2017), and the backcountry permit doesn’t cost anything more. Our round-trip ferry cost on Grand Portage Transportation Lines from Minnesota (a different company runs the ferry from Michigan) is $160 a person including gear, for a day trip just to Windigo and back you’re looking at $67.
Expensive? Yes, at least for this budget-minded traveler. But Julie really wanted to come back, I thought it would be a fun introduction to backpacking, and if I ever decide to put ‘visit every national park’ on my dream list, this is one of the more challenging ones taken care of.
We land at Rock Harbor in a timely manner. The Voyager II will stay here overnight, then retrace it’s route back to Grand Harbor tomorrow taking folks off the island. Rock Harbor has cabins and a hotel, so if you’re not a camper and wish to visit Isle Royale for more than a day, staying here overnight is your best option. We ignore the restaurant, gift shop, and campground – the rain hasn’t started yet and we’re determined to get to Three Mile before it does. We do fill up our water at the last potable water source we’ll have until Windigo and while I’m visiting the restroom, Julie weighs her pack at 55 pounds, good lord. I don’t dare weigh mine (we suspect it’s a couple pounds lighter than hers though) under the hope that not knowing exactly how heavy it is will make it easier to carry.
I guess we’re about to find out.
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