at the Water's Edge

Living life and learning all I can along the way!

Isle Royale: Trip Overview

The Trip

Last week, I was able to cross something off my bucket list: visit Isle Royale National Park.  I spent a week in the wilderness with 5 friends on a backpacking adventure on this 45-mile long island in the northwest corner of Lake Superior – the world’s largest lake.  To get to the island, you have to either take a boat or a plane.  There are ferries that leave seasonally from either Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Copper Harbor or Houghton) or Minnesota.  We chose to take the ferry from Copper Harbor, Michigan, which lasts about 3-4 hours and brings you to Rock Harbor on the southeast corner of Isle Royale. 
From here, we opted to take a “water taxi” (chartered boat) to an area known as Moskey Basin so that we could (a) start our trip in a different spot than most others on the ferry, and (b) cover more of the island than we could do if we had to start and end at the same point.

We were on the island for 6 nights, did 5 actual “backpacking” days, with one “day off” to explore and take a day hike.  Our goal was to keep the daily mileage low so that we could really enjoy ourselves, take some time to explore and not tire ourselves out too much.  I think we did well with that goal.  The trip was very relaxing, and I never felt rushed to get to our destination for the day.  We probably only did a total of about 25 miles of actual backpacking.  Below is a map of the approximate route we took, marking where we stayed.
The portion of the island we visited: click to view larger image

The whole island & our path: click image to view the full size

 Our day hikes included one to some old copper mines...
Minong Mines - Old Copper Mine Shaft, used from the 1870s - 1880s
and to a lookout tower...
Mount Ojibway Tower - we hiked here on our day "off"

The Campgrounds

Isle Royale is such a remote place and so hard to get to that there is a sense of truly being “out there” in the wilderness.  On the other hand, parts of the trip did not seem as remote as other backpacking trips we’ve taken because you essentially have to camp in designated campgrounds.  Most of the time when you’re backpacking, you do “back country” camping – and just plop your tent down wherever you like, so long as it’s a little ways off from the trail.  Not so on Isle Royale.  If you really want to, they sometimes allow for backcountry camping permits, but the reason they discourage it is obvious once you get there: besides the trail, the island is filled with such dense vegetation that you’d hardly be able to make your way walking through it (trust me, we tried), let alone find anywhere suitable to set up your tent. 

At the campgrounds, they have several group camping sites, tent sites, and then my favorite: the shelters.  They don’t have shelters at all of campgrounds, but we actually only ended up having one night where we had to set up our tent.  The shelters are essentially screened-in porches, with three wooden walls, wooden floors and one screen wall with a screen door.  They fit about six people, which was perfect for our group.  The great thing about the shelters was that we were able to spend time “indoors” away from cold, rain or bugs with our friends, rather than each being relegated to our own tents.  Because everybody camps in the designated areas, I feel like we saw more people than we’d typically see while backpacking.  

Pit Toilet!!
 The other thing that made Isle Royale seem a little less rustic was the fact that each campground had pit toilets.  I’m telling you, you have never been so excited to see an outhouse in your life until your only other alternative is digging a hole in the middle of the forest.  It was great.

Making dinner on the dock at McCargoe Cove

Another neat feature about the campgrounds is that the ones that were on the shore of Lake Superior had docks, either for individuals with boats, for the water taxis or for the ferries.  The docks made a great hangout spot in the evenings to sit around, enjoy the view, make dinner, or even to jump into the lake!

Campfires are not allowed at most campgrounds on the island.  The only night that we were allowed to have a fire was our third night, at McCargoe Cove.  Unfortunately, there’s a group fire ring that you have to use and there was already a large group that had claimed use of it for cooking their dinner.  We tried to go use it later that night, but it started raining.  Alas, we were left with our backpacking stoves as the only real fire.

Moskey Basin
Each campground we stayed at was a little different, and some were larger than others.  I think my favorite campsite that we got was in Moskey Basin, on our first night, because we had our own little private area on the water with an outcropping of rock right in front of our shelter.

Three Mile

Three Mile was kind of similar, and even had a small secondary dock right out front, but there was a neighboring shelter that was a little closer than I would have liked.   

As far as the campgrounds on the whole go, my favorite was probably McCargoe Cove (our third night), because it seemed a little more serene and secluded.   
A view of McCargoe Cove
 Daisy Farm was fun, too, and was unique because it actually had a sandy beach area, but it was a much larger area and just felt busier.   
Part of the beach at Daisy Farm
My least favorite campground was West Chickenbone.  Although there was a pretty view of the inland lake, I preferred being on Lake Superior, there wasn’t really any good water frontage there, and there were no shelters.

Our campsite at West Chickenbone Lake

The Landscape and Nature

The terrain on the island varied quite a bit.  Some of the ground was sheer rock, which curved and cracked to form what was in my mind some of the most beautiful landscape.  The areas along the shore and up on the high ridges of the island tended to be like this. 
Part of the shoreline trail between Three Mile and Rock Harbor
Inland and lower in elevation, the island is covered with thick forests, filled with evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs.   
A view of the island (facing East) from Mt. Ojibway Tower
There were a few grassy field-like openings in the woods which were quite serene and some swamps and marshland.   
I think this was along the trail between McCargoe Cove and Daisy Farm
The trails that we walked on ranged from thick mud--apparently it had rained a LOT before we came – the rangers said they’d never seen the trails this muddy – though it was really only bad in a few short spots... stony rocky path and climbing over rocks and boulders... marshlands where little boardwalks had been constructed...

The trails were actually flatter than I thought they would be.  The only really bad hills we climbed were around Chickenbone Lake, particularly headed from McCargoe Cove to East Chickenbone, where we essentially were climbing up to Greenstone Ridge. 

Giant version of Queen Anne's Lace?
There were some really pretty plants and flowers along the way, as well.  I recognized a few and tried to figure out the names of some others.  There were some really pretty lilies and irises, a few rare yellow lady’s slippers, HUGE Queen Anne’s lace and clover, and lots of berry plants including blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and thimbleberries.  We even got to taste test the blueberries, raspberries and strawberries!  Our first day on the island we stumbled across this huge strawberry patch filled with the ittiest bittiest strawberries, but they were delicious!  I ate some then and picked another handful to bring back to camp, which I then added to my oatmeal the next morning!  Mmm…delish!

The Wildlife

There is not a huge array of animals on Isle Royale.  After all, it is an island in the middle of a huge lake.  However, there are some unique characters that have landed here somehow or other, one of them being the moose.  It was our singular goal on this trip to spot a moose, since we (at least I) hadn’t seen one in person before.  The second day, our goal was complete.  No sooner had we gotten to our campsite at West Chickenbone and taken off our boots than we heard some splashing in the water and some rustling in the woods.  We ran over toward the noise and spotted her!  A female moose was within 100 feet of where we were standing.  Unfortunately, our view was somewhat obstructed by the dense forest and vegetation, so we weren’t able to get a good picture.  We may have caught her a bit on some video footage, though.  We watched as she munched away on some tree leaves then slowly meandered away and out of view.  That was by far the best animal sighting on the trip.

We did not see (or hear) and wolves – there are only 14 on the island at the present time.  We did get to see some other animals, though, including loons, snowshoe hares, garter snakes, and lots of little ground squirrels.  We decided that the loons are aptly named – they’re quite loony all right!  They have their “normal” call that they make, but then sometimes they make this crazy sounding high-pitched noise (kind of sounds like Curly from The Three Stooges - whoop-oop-oop-oop-oop...), which is sometimes accompanied by them flapping their wings like a mad bird while skimming across the top of the lake.  It was quite an entertaining sight.  We also got to see one loon swim under the water and chase some herring – the water was so clear that we could see the whole thing.  Tom even captured it on video!

The squirrels were pretty crazy, too.  I never knew squirrels could “talk” so much!  They chirped away, often seeming to talk right to us.  We watched one crazy squirrel try to get into our shelter, but after two failed attempts that ended in it falling from roof to ground, I think it finally gave up.  One squirrel jumped on our picnic table while we were sitting there.  It tried to get the remnants of my oatmeal, but only succeeded in slipping on my spork (yes, I have a green titanium spork) and falling off the picnic table.  This same squirrel also hopped from the table right onto one of our friend’s shoulders!  The squirrels and also the hares did not seem to be at all alarmed by our presence.

The Weather

Prior to starting our hiking were informed of the following in regards to weather: (1) the island creates its own weather, which may differ vastly from the surrounding areas or even from place to place on the island, and (2) you can experience all types of weather (hot, cold, dry, wet) on the island, often in the same day.  It did not take long before I believed them.  When we arrived there was a very thick blanket of fog hovering over the lake, to the point that we couldn’t even see the island from the ferry until we were just about at the dock.  When we took the water taxi over to Moskey Basin, the fog began to lift as we worked our way into the cove.  We did a little day hiking and exploring that first afternoon, but it didn’t last long as we were all dying of heat.  We took a little dip in Lake Superior, which was rumored to be as cold as 39 degrees in some spots.  Fortunately, it was a little warmer than that in this little inlet of water.  That night, it got quite cold, to the point where I was all bundled up in order to be outside.  The rest of the trip varied similarly, often having hot days with cool nights and mornings.

We were very fortunate to have beautiful weather the whole trip, though.  We had one evening where it sprinkled, but did not rain hard.  Fortunately, if it was cold or rainy at night, we had the shelters that we could all hang out in and still have some fun.  There was only one hiking day where it threatened to rain, and we got all suited up, fully expecting to get wet.  It remained overcast, but the rain held off for us.  The last day of the trip, we awoke to an extremely foggy morning--to the point that we couldn’t really make out the water.  It began to clear, however, as we hiked and we ended up with some beautifully sunny skies as we finished out our trek.  But before our ferry left, the eerie fog had settled in once more.  I suppose we just weren’t meant to see the island from the boat.

The Food

My backpack weighed about 40 pounds when we first left.  That was a good 5-10 pounds heavier than I was hoping for.  The good news: a good chunk of that was food, which meant my pack was much lighter by the end of the trip as I ate my way through.  I was determined not to go “hungry” on this trip and suffer from the feeling of deprivation in the wilderness.  So, all of those things that I had laid out to pack, actually made it in there.  I had a different variety of oatmeal every day for breakfast.  I had a bunch of different types of trail mix, LOTS of snacks, and either a freeze-dried or dehydrated pasta meal for each dinner.  We brought lots of cheese and summer sausage, which we enjoyed the first couple days. My marshmallows didn’t hold up very well, but I tried to roast them over the stove one night anyways.

I actually ended up with extra food at the end of the trip, which I was okay with.  It gave me options to eat throughout the week, so it wasn’t like, “Ugghh…I guess I’ll have another power bar…”  Nevertheless, we were all still craving “real” food by the end of the trip.  Fortunately for us, there is actually a restaurant on the island.  Yep.  In Rock Harbor.  There is a “lodge” of sorts there, and also a little restaurant where they serve real, hot, cooked to order food.  We had this in mind as we hiked our last day back to Rock Harbor.  We made sure that we left early enough in the morning that we could stop at the restaurant for lunch before heading back to the mainland on the ferry.  We all decided on a delicious cheeseburger, and were not disappointed!

Health and RA

I have to say that I felt remarkably well on this trip.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so well while backpacking.  I attribute this to a combination of properly preparing myself with the appropriate drugs to inhibit a Rheumatoid Arthritis flare and also keeping our daily mileage low.  My feet and my back were very grateful.  On the RA front, I think the only symptom I really had all week was a swollen wrist for a day or two.  As long as it wasn’t feet, knees, hips or back, I was a happy camper, quite literally!  I appreciate all those whose thoughts and prayers were with me on this trip, and I’m thankful to God for watching over me and helping me feel well so that I could truly enjoy this trip and the beauty of creation on this wilderness adventure.

I am also very grateful that nobody got hurt in any way on this trip.  There were lots of places on the trail where you could easily twist an ankle or slip on some rocks.  Everybody was safe and healthy, and we didn’t even get charged by the moose!

In Conclusion…

I would say that despite the long journey required to get to the island, the adventures that you will have there are more than worth the trip.  If you are into hiking, backpacking, wilderness or national parks, I highly recommend travelling to Isle Royale.  I really enjoyed being completely disconnected for a week, and the chance to relax, explore and enjoy the beauty of nature.  I think I understand now why so many people who go there return.  Although we spent a week there, we only saw one little corner of the island.  There are so many more areas to explore that I think perhaps a future adventure awaits us on another part of the island.

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Hi there! My name is Dana and I live in West Michigan with my husband, Tom and our dog Copernicus. I created this space as a place to share the things I learn along this journey I call life. I work in marketing and I'm a sort of Jane of All Trades, interested in all things nature, gardening, cooking, exploring and learning new things. This blog is a conglomeration of my interests, hobbies, life and life lessons. Thanks for stopping by!