After our 11 am rest break we find fresh moose prints along the trail, heading the same direction we’re going. That’s exciting, as we’ve seen moose scat and shed antlers on the island but no actual moose.
Those who’ve heard of Isle Royale might know it as the place with the moose and wolves.
This island is home to the longest running scientific study on the relationship between the two species. Moose originally crossed to Isle Royale in the 1900’s, and wolves followed in the 1950’s. Today, the rangers estimate there are 1,600 moose on the island, but only two wolves remain – a father and daughter.
Isle Royale isn’t big enough to support a viable wolf population, their numbers depends on cold winters where the lake freezes over to allow new animals to cross and enter the gene pool. This hasn’t happened often in recent years, and so the wolves have dwindled.
There’s been a lot of talk about what should be done about the wolves, and this fall there’s going to be a vote. Meanwhile, the moose population is up due to a lack of natural predators which theoretically means we have a better chance of seeing one.
In a boggy clearing, the tracks disappear. We look out over the tall grasses, but don’t see any moose. Darn.
Not long after, we meet up with one of the Ferry Guys coming the other direction. They stayed at Desor last night, and then one of their number had to head back to Rock Harbor to catch his ferry on Saturday morning. If you do the math, that means he needs to get from Desor to Rock Harbor in less than a day and a half, a distance of 29.4 miles. He’s very tall with very long legs, and is moving fast. We stop to say hi and wish him a good hike, and he continues on his way. I imagine he’ll make it.
We reach South Lake Desor campground at 1 pm having not stopped for lunch, meaning our eight mile hike was completed in a record five hours. It ends up being our fastest hike of the trip. We’re the first to arrive at the campground and opt for site 1 at the end of the road. It’s technically on the lake, but like Hatchet it’s a steep slope down to the water. Lunch is enjoyed on the boulders down by the shore.
The group camping sites have the best water access, and like Hatchet are in birch forest. This is the only sandy beach I see this whole trip. You’ll notice though that we’ve only gone swimming in Lake Superior, and there’s a reason for that. The interior lakes have leeches and swimmer’s itch.
Jul 28 (Day 7)
Julie and I have talked a lot about what to do today. We can either make it a short day and go to Island Mine campground at 5.5 miles, or go 11.3 miles to Washington Creek campground at Windigo. The rub is there’s no guarantee that Island Mine will have water, the creek there runs intermittently, and we don’t carry enough water to spend the night without a source. But 11.3 miles in one day… I’m not so sure about this.
Today the woods isn’t dominated by pine or birch, but by maple and oak. For most of the way there’s little underbrush and our pace is pretty good. We reach the turnoff for Island Mine and meet a youth group working on the trails coming from that direction. They say there’s water, so we could stop there, but we opt to go the whole way to Windigo. I do sort of regret that decision in the afternoon.
I’ll spare you complaints about my shoulders again. One thing I will say though is that my feet and legs have been doing quite well. I’ve been wearing my tennis shoes from Amazon for this trip (I don’t care for hiking boots) and had been worried about blisters and not enough cushioning. Yeah, my feet are sore by the end of the day (rather like at Amazon), but not extremely so. They’ve worked quite well and I have no blisters or rub spots. This’ll be the last outing for these shoes as they’re starting to fall apart, but they’ve done well by me.
Around 4 pm, we arrive in Windigo. Woohoo, we made it! All told, we hiked 52 miles on this trip.
The campground is packed. This is by far the largest campground I’ve seen on this trip (Rock Harbor is probably a similar size I imagine) with five campsites and 11 shelters (not including the group sites). All the shelters have been claimed and we’re stuck in one of the last tent sites, overgrown and farther from the water for a night (the next night we get a shelter).
There’s potable water here. And flush toilets, and a convenience store! First we stop at the visitor center, which despite its small size is very well done. My favorite display is the old 2nd Order Fresnel lens from Rock of Ages Lighthouse which stands off Isle Royale’s southwest point. This lens helped guide ships safely around the island from 1910 to 1977. The lighthouse is still in operation today with an automated acrylic light running on solar power.
There’s also a shower house at Windigo, but the tokens cost a whopping $5.88 for 5 minutes, yikes! Julie and I skip the shower, and jump off the dock in our swimsuits again, earning the grins of several boaters who are tied up there. “Is it cold?” “Just a bit.”
Oh, and I finally get my moose! A cow and bull are eating seaweed out of Washington creek, visible from the campground. My best photo comes the next day though when they’re farther up the creek.
In the evening, Julie and I go back down to the docks. On the way we see the other three Ferry Guys and inform them that as of yesterday their buddy was still alive and well. While lounging by the shore two Merganser ducks with their ducklings swim past.
We talk about everything and nothing for over an hour. The temperature drops noticeably as the sun gets closer to the horizons. Three b oats are still at dock, an done is cooking fish. Loons cry in the distance. It’s a good end to the day.
July 30 (Day 9)
Yesterday Julie and I mosey around Windigo and generally have a lazy day, it feels great. Today we board the Sea Hunter II back to civilization.
Lake Superior Day, a local holiday started in Thunder Bay the 1990’s, is held the third Sunday in July and is now celebrated in several coastal towns with activities, food, and beach cleanup. The rangers at Windigo celebrate too, but have delayed it because of weather for the last couple weeks. Word goes around that today is that day, and that those of us departing on the Ferry today are in for a special treat.
We board as a dozen or so rangers – most in uniform but sans shoes – line up at the end of the dock. Ah, I can see where this is going. I pull out my camera and record the whole thing, snapping this picture afterwards of them all in the water.
Not far out of the harbor, the ferry slows, and Rock of Ages lighthouse comes into view. It’s under renovation right now and the exterior has been stripped of paint, giving it a derelict air. The dark clouds rolling in from the west add to the mood.
We punch through the storm on the way back to Grand Portage, MN, and for a while the ride is quite choppy. The horizon and shore disappear and our world becomes gray. Good thing the boat isn’t real full today and everyone can squeeze inside.
Julie’s car is still in the lot where we left it and in fine shape. We stop in Grand Marais for supper (Sven & Ole’s pizza – decent). And later at Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors for desert (also decent). After spending the night at Super 8 in Superior, WI, we finish our drive back to Madison.
So, my takeaways on this first backpacking trip.
I’ll keep this short and to the point. First off, the weight of the pack makes a huge difference in how easy or hard backpacking is. Julie and I knew this when we started on this trip, but didn’t really understand until we got to experience it. Next time, I’ll make a bigger effort to keep the weight down.
Two, I didn’t end up needing many more calories than I normally do, those sites that say bring 1,000 more than your daily recommendation are full of it. Well, maybe for some people that’s true, but that sure wasn’t the case for Julie and I. I weighed myself the night we stayed at the hotel on the way home (we’d brought a scale with us to weigh the packs), and I’d lost only one pound, a negligible difference. Julie was the same.
Three. Rather like RVing, not every moment of every day backpacking will be fun. Some days the weather won’t cooperate. Some days the hiking just doesn’t feel good. But I did always enjoy the evenings once the work was done and I could just sit back and relax in the middle of nowhere. So yes, I will go backpacking again, although it may be a while before I pick up my own gear – the light weight stuff isn’t cheap.