Isle Royale Adventure

I had done a bit of backpacking and hiking back in the 1970s but had gotten away from it for years but always wanted to get back to it. Also, hiking on Isle Royale was part of that goal. Any gear I had back then was long gone.

Over the years I'd gradually began accumulating the right gear: backpacking tent, good sleeping bag and a pad, water filter/purifying unit, small stove and cookware, etc. When I'd accumulated most of the big stuff by 2015 I went to REI in Ann Arbor, with my friend Steve for advice given his experience, and shopped for & purchased an Osprey Aether-70 backpack.

The goal was to hike the island in 2016, but with the election season interfering I had to move the plans to 2017.

Forward to 2017, the plan was to go to the island in mid-July, but with our new home purchase and moving in July, I delayed again to mid-August.

As I worked to finalize the trip a number of issues arose. Apparently the ferry to the island from Copper Harbor gets sold out! You definitely need to book in advance. I finally did, with a ride over on Monday Aug 21st and return trip Saturday Aug 26th. I had wanted to get on the island Sunday but there was no room on the ferry.

In the last couple weeks I also assembled the smaller items needed: gathering the clothes and hats and such, put together a small first aid kit, buy more stove fuel, gather food. I packed about 90% of it into the backpack the Wednesday before the trip and tried on the pack for weight and fit- felt great.

Food: My friend Scott said when he hiked he used regular foods. But I opted to go with freeze-dried foods. However, looking at the single serve packs of various brands at Bill&Pauls or REI or Cabelas- each of these were $7-10 ! I figured I needed at least ten meals at two meals per day.

Instead I bought a pre-packed set from REI produced by Harmony House. At first I was going to take several of these vegetable items as-is in their packages but opted instead to create 12 meals in advance. I mixed and matched the various ingredients from this kit into twelve zip lock bags complete with added spices. This way as I consume the meals the pack gets lighter and I am not carrying any food items which I may not use or have left over.


Primary Gear:

REI three season-two person tent
Kelty 21degree sleeping bag
REI self inflating sleeping pad
Osprey Aether AG 70 backpack
MSR Whisperlite three fuel stove
Harmony House freeze dried foods
Katedyne Pro water filter
Merrell Moab shoes



Day One (Monday):


Rock Harbor Trail to Suzy's Cave Trail to Tobin Harbor Trail to Mount Franklin Trail to Greenstone Ridge Trail. Hiked to Mount Ojibwa then down to Daisy Farm campground.
10.2 miles

The Mount Franklin trail from Tobin Harbor to Greenstone was THE TOUGHEST segment of the entire week. It rained Monday night.

Day Two (Tuesday):


Daisy Farm Trail to Greenstone Ridge Trail, hike west to Chickenbone East then to McCargo Cove Campground. 
11 miles

Another brief squall of rain Tuesday night

Day Three (Wednesday):


McCargo Cove to Indian Portage Trail to Greenstone then to Daisy Farm via Chickenbone campgrounds
13.1 miles

Day Four (Thursday)

Daisy Farm Campground via Rock Harbor trail to Rock Harbor.
8 miles

TOTAL: approximately 42.3 miles of hiking and 22 hours.



I didn't underestimate the island. It is beautiful and rugged. I had originally planned for five nights and six days but by Tuesday evening had decided to cut one day off. I was having

fun but decided to get back home a day earlier in order to unpack my gear on Sunday rather than come home Sunday and go right to work the next day and be unpacking Monday evening.

However, I started to get a stress injury on the side of my right foot making it difficult to hike at time. Also, I'd had some issues keeping my stove lit for breakfast and dinner both Monday and Tuesday. So I opted to head back to Daisy Farm campground and be on the south side of the island if any issues arose which was prescient. Wednesday night the stove finally stopped working. It wasn't keeping a pressure seal to allow the flame to keep going. Another camper heated my water enough so I could get dinner that night. I tried replacing an O-ring on-site but no good. If I stayed longer on the island past Thursday I'd be eating peanuts and Clif-bars. So I decided Wednesday night to hike Thursday (8 miles along the Rock Harbor Trail) back to the harbor and see if I could get a ride off the island.

When I planned to go originally I tried to book the ferry for Sunday but it was full and sold out! So Monday through Saturday was my passage. The boat only holds so many people (per Coast Guard rules I assume). Luckily they had room on Thursday for three of us who decided to exit before our scheduled date. so if you go, book passage well in advance on the days you plan.

But also know that if you want to get back to Copper Harbor early you may not be able to. I took the Isle Royale Ferry from Copper Harbor but there is also a ferry that departs from Houghton as well.

When we got off the ferry the national park staff divides the passengers into two groups: Those that plan to backpack/camp and those staying at the lodges/hotel. There was 90-100 people on the boat and at least 50 of us were backpacking! After an orientation regarding "leave no trace" and "pack it out" we went into the ranger station and got our permits to hike. The park has an entry fee of $7/day or $60/season. I'd bought the $60 so as to not worry about details of how many days I'd stay. The permits are no charge but they want to know a preliminary itinerary, i.e. at which campgrounds you intend to stay which gives them an idea of who is where in rough sense. From discussion with the rangers there was about 250 people hiking on the island.

After getting permits everyone pretty much heads west out on Rock Harbor Trail- it was like a freeway! So after 1.80 miles I decided to get some solitude and less traffic and took a right turn north on Cave Trail (or Suzy's Cave Trail). There is a cave in that approximately .2 mile segment which leads up to Tobin's Ridge Trail. This trail runs parallel to the Rock Harbor Trail on the north side of the peninsula on which the harbor sits and you can actually get to it right from the harbor by going straight north from the ranger station rather than east- a factor I had not noticed when I first left the harbor.

From Tobin's Ridge I decided to ascend up to the Greenstone Ridge trail and Mount Franklin. The Mount Franklin trail segment from Tobin to Greenstone was the TOUGHEST segment of the entire
trip in my opinion! VERY difficult.

Once up on the Greenstone I was surprised how easy that trail was- far easier than the trails down along the shores of the island!

After traversing the interior a bit and seeing Mount Ojibwa lookout tower, I opted to go back down to Daisy Farm campground -a very popular campground by the way. Camping is first come, first serve and if you wait too long in the day you may not find a site at any given location. All campgrounds have a mix of lean-to (screened in on the open side) shelters and campsites.

They also all have one or two outhouses.

A word about outhouses and the "leave no trace-pack it out" as applies to toiletry. If you HAVE to go and can wait until a campground is near, whether camping there or not, you can just use the outhouse. This applies to going #2 (to be tactful), not urinating. BUT, if you cannot absolutely wait, THEN that is when you have to dig a hole, go in the hole, and bury your waste EXCEPT you don't bury the toilet paper. That is what you have to pack out probably in a zip lock bag, which they recommend you carry several zip lock bags for any trash eventuality.

Oh, and don't drop the zip lock bag or other trash in the outhouses holes. It just creates bigger issues in the ground.

Monday was also eclipse day! The NPS had given us eclipse glasses when we got our permits. As I hiked from Tobins Ridge up to Greenstone I did come across 5-6 young men sitting on a large open rock face. I asked if they were getting ready to watch the eclipse and one told me it was almost over. Hahahaha. I hadn't even noticed because it wasn't much to begin with and I was in the woods on Tobin's Ridge trail and didn't see the sky much anyway. All rather anti-climactic.

It rained Monday night at Daisy Farm quite hard. Tuesday I decided to cross the island and camp at McCargoe Bay. I had intended to go back up to Mt Ojibwa and climb the tower for photos but there are two trails out of Daisy Farm and I took the one on the left which reached the Greenstone a mile or so west of the tower. I didn't really want to backtrack so headed onward past Chickenbone campgrounds around Chickenbone Lake (so named due to its shape) and down to the cove.

Just getting to Greenstone Tuesday morning was a wet ordeal. I was soaked from the hips down due to all the rainwater still laying the the overgrown leaves along the trail. Once on Greenstone the trail opened up and I did come across another hiker heading in the opposite direction, the first I'd seen for the last couple hours. We exchanged greetings and I said he was the first person I saw and he commented that perhaps no one else wanted to get wet.

About 10am or later, I took a break on a large rock face open area, took off my shoes and socks and unzipped the lower leg of my pants and laid them all out to dry in the sun for about a half hour. Good opportunity for a snack and water break also. I opted to change my socks at this point. Onward for the hike with plenty of long vista views!

It rained again Tuesday evening. I'd camped at the top of the McCargoe Bay campground then went down to the lake where there was a dock and a picnic table to make dinner. Two other hikers went by and I told them if they couldn't find a site, the one I was in was huge and could accommodate two or three more tents- which they did decide to do. After dinner I lounged on the dock and chatted with a man and his son who'd come to the island by boat. Soon thunder could be heard and I headed up to my tent and tucked in just in time to avoide a hard short rain squall. (One of the two other guys on the site simply camped under a tarp strung between two trees- ultralight- though he did have a sleeping bag and pad).

I did have a rain jacket and also a rain cover for my pack but it never rained during the day while I was there and hiking after 8am most mornings I didn't even need a fleece or jacket as it was already warm enough. I wore the same shirt all four days- my longsleeve tech running shirt which I got after completing the Grand Rapids half-marathon. It was wicking, kept my arms from sunburn and cool enough I didn't overheat. I wore the same pants each day and only concerned myself with changing underwear and socks- especially socks as my feet were getting soaked and the shoes muddy every day.

There is a LOT of mud on the island. It's hard to avoid it and indeed the NPS rangers tell you to slog righ through it rather than widen the trail by trying to go around. Often there are rocks in the middle of a muddy strail section which you can also walk on. But in some cases there is no option but to just muddle down the middle!

There are also many many sections of long 12 inch wide boards to walk on which traverses bogs or watery areas. Some of these seemed 100 yards long or more and be aware- not all the board are in good shape! Some are rotted. Others have the nails which hold them to the log underneath very loose and the board shifts as you step on it. In several spots you can see piles of these boards and logs staged for use in repair of the damaged sections and indeed on Wednesday afternoon at the Daisy Farm camp, I saw a crew of 8-10 people in park uniforms exiting the woods to board a boat for the end of the day. They were carrying axes and chainsaws and gear to repair these wooden sections.

Day three out of McCargo Bay was my moose encounter morning. I'd gotten up had breakfast (with difficulty as the stove was not working well). A bit after 8am I began my trip back over the island to the south side. It would be my most aggressive day with 13+ miles to get back to Daisy Farm campground.

I did see wolf tracks in the mud and photographed them but never did see a wolf.

The trail runs along a cove or lake and is close to the water. 15 minutes out of the camp I saw the moose cow down in the water on my left and I took a couple photos as she looked up and noticed me. I assumed she'd stay there so I started hiking again at which point she moved up out of the water and stood on the trail looking at me from about 30 yards. I assumed she'd moved out of the water so as to not feel trapped there as I went down the trail. I moved up off the trail a bit and too a couple more photos. She started to come toward me but after a couple steps she stepped on one of those 12" boards and stepped back and began mooing. After a minute she headed up into the trees and away from the water.

Once I reached Greenstone ridge a while later I came across a group of young men taking a break. We chatted about campgrounds and destinations and they said they were heading to Lake Ritchie. Just as they said and before I could mention it, another couple walked in and told them Lake Ritchie had been on NPS alert for a bacteria bloom and the water in the lake was unusable for drinking. Boiling and filtering would NOT fix it and you'd get poisoned. The NPS even recommended not eating fish there. They had told us this Monday when we had orientation at the dock and the NPS had posted signs all over the island to that effect. These young guys hadn't heard it yet and it changed their itinerary immediately.

Anyway, I made it back to Daisy Farm Camp and was sore and exhausted this time. I didn't see a campsite readily available and didn't feel like hunting one down so I took one of the lean-to shelters. When you do this you need to put your permit (which you twist tie to your backpack for visibility) onto the door. Some people get the lean-to and set up their tents inside for better heat retention, but I opted to just put down the self inflating sleeping pad and and my 20 degree capable Kelty sleeping bag. (It did get down to about 35 degrees each night on the island).

I went to the dock and took off my shoes and socks, chatted with other campers and refilled my water bottles with my Katedyne filter kit. Then back to make dinner- and the final straw- the stove would not stay lit. The MSR Whisperlite attaches to the MSR fuel bottle and you pump it up to pressurize the white gas inside. But mine was not pumping up and reaching any resistance. Thus the flame would die out unless I pumped it a bit more but then it would fade again...Dang it.

The older couple I'd been talking to at the dock were at their lean to and heated up my water for me so I could cook the freeze dried food I'd packed for my last meal on the island. Once the stove died I decided to try to depart Thursday. Worse case, I could not get off the island but could camp near the harbor and eat at the restaurant there. And I still had peanuts, bread & peanut butter, and clifbars.

The lean-to shelters are three sided with a roof and the entire front screened in. But they are up off the ground a bit and ultimately like a large beat box! Yeah- people in a nearby shelter walked rather heavily in theirs and all night I could hear their footsteps booming from the beatbox effect of the elevated floor. Jeesh.

This was my earliest start at about 7am and the only day I hiked with my fleece for a bit. With no stove, I didn't take time to cook breakfast and I didn't have to take down the tent since I'd used the shelter so I started the eight miles along the Rock Harbor trail back to the harbor. A portion passes some open mine pits (which have wood fence barriers) so I got a few photos there. The coast trail was difficult with lots of rocky up and down. Finally I reached the Suzy's Cave post and was less than two miles from the harbor and my right foot was aching quite a bit. Less than an hour later I reached the harbor and checked in with the ranger who put me third on the list for standby for the ferry. An hour later she contacted them by marine radio to check on arrival time and asked about room off the island and they said they could take all three of us on standby at which point she gave the ferry boat our names.

I had a cup of soup in the restaurant as I waited the last four hours of my trip on the island. Most of the staff was from China, interestingly, ( "Ni Hao" ) and I had conversation with the waitress from Taiwan for a bit.

Eventually the ferry came- the take the packs and luggage up top, you put your stove fuel (if liquid) in a crate for separate storage (does not apply to the screw-on propane style fuel- just white gas or kerosene as I had in the MSR bottle). Then onto the boat for the 55 mile - three hour passage back to Copper Harbor.

I got back and was able to move my Saturday stay at the North Port Motel from Saturday to Thursday. I got cleaned up, organized my pack and disposed of any trash I'd packed out, and went
for dinner at the Mariner North restaurant. I'd eaten there Sunday night too. It's really the only place to eat and it is quite good. (By the way, one young lady waiting tables there was from Nigeria). There's a pub across the street but while I was there the attached grill kitchen was not open so I have no idea of its menu.

I also noticed a brewpub in Copper Harbor. When I mentioned it back home before my trip a friend made a "face." I went there Sunday when I arrived and tried their IPA... and I made the same "face." Sorry pub, not really that good of beer. Better to get a beer at The Mariner North restaurant.

Now for the long drive home. My shoes simply stank! So I rode most of the ten hours back to Grand Rapids without shoes on, tossing them to the passenger side and pulling out the insole.

At one point I held them out a window to air them out as I drove through a town at 35 mph LOL

On the way north I'd seen US-2 eastbound backed up for a couple miles as traffic tried to go south across the bridge. So I opted to take the route east out of Marquette directly to I-75 and come do the bridge from the north just in case there was a similar back-up, I'd already be on the expressway.


Lessons Learned

Probably the singular most different thing I could do is the tent. I used the 2-person, 3-season tent my wife and I camp in from the car. It's not really a backpacking tent. We got our tent a few years ago (and bought our son Brenden one as well). They don't make that model anymore but it is similar to the current REI Co-op Passage 2 Tent which is nearly five pounds. On the one hand with the extra room I dragged my pack in each night. But I am already shopping for a solo backpack tent such as the MSR Hubba which at 2lb-7oz cuts my tent weight in half!

Injury- I just did not get enough pack time. I'd meant to pack the backpack with my gear and hike a local trail a couple times a week to get used to the weight. But with buying a house and moving all through late June and July, I never did have the opportunity. The soreness or stress injury on my foot is simply lack of training- not enough time practicing with the added 40 lbs. But the pack fit great and never caused discomfort or chafing except a mild discomfort on my right shoulder. I had broken the collar bone in 1989 and they allowed it to heal overlapping as was common. The pack pad went right across this bump but by moving the pad a bit to the right off the bump and closer to my shoulder I eliminated this easily.

Footwear- first I forgot to pack footwear to put on at the campsites so as be able to take off my shoes each night. I do have Packmocs which I will take next time
I also probably would hike in something more of a boot. The Moabs did great for grip on the rocky terrain, but I would probably go with Merrell Moab mid-rise which puts the shoe higher on my ankle rather than Merrell Moab shoes.

Swimsuit- Take one. The lake is really cold but it would be refreshing each evening after a hike to dunk in even just quickly and get washed off.

Finally- test my stove in advance. I didn't do this but also had no reason to think it would not work, though I had not used it for over a year. So my fault- lesson learned.

August was a good time to go- late enough to get past bug season. But not too late to where the moose get too aggressive.


I am already planning for my next visit there next August 2018. Our tentative plan is to do the Ore-to-Shore race in Marquette, visit friends in Ontanogan on Saturday and head to Copper Harbor or Houghton on Sunday for passage to the island. Joni and I can day-hike on the first day and I'd head out for two or three nights camping on the island after that.



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