Monday, July 27, 2015

Isle Royale National Park

You Can’t Get There From Here

A Packrafting Adventure Across Isle Royale National Park

The RANGER III cut through the gloomy fog and icy water of Lake Superior. We were halfway through a six-hour voyage from Houghton, Michigan to Isle Royale National Park and I was beginning to think that “lake” was a misnomer. But I suppose “Inland Sea of Freshwater Superior” just doesn’t have the same ring. I went below to check the campsite map one more time before filling out our backcountry permit application. I left the box for canoes and kayaks unmarked; we didn't have any.  I brought the permit to the Park Service Ranger down in the galley. She scrunched her nose and looked at it quizzically. Then she looked at me apologetically and pointed to our planned second night’s camp. “You know, without a canoe or kayak, you can’t get there from here.”

This trip was born a year earlier along the banks of the Kongakut River, deep inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I was fresh out of the service and headed to Alaska to cross the top items off my bucket list. Brothers Marty and Earl were enjoying retirement and came to witness the caribou migration. Earl was unaccompanied by his wife, so we set up our tents a little farther away from the others in “Bachelor’s Quarters.” We often stayed up late into the Arctic twilight, drinking river-chilled beer and bullshitting about travel we’d done and travel we’d like to do. Earl has the best stories and he’s also the first person I met that has a packraft. Lightweight and inflatable, packrafts were quickly becoming the next big thing in outdoor recreation, especially Alaska, by creating new opportunities for unique trips over land and water. We discussed the possibilities of such a craft in the Lower 48.

I bought a packraft at the end of that summer as a “souvenir” from Alaska. At Earl’s urging, Marty got one for Christmas. The three of us showed that rare ability to turn a great idea mentioned in passing into reality; meeting in Michigan over a year after our ANWR trip to explore the potential of the packrafts.

Isle Royale National Park is ideal for a packrafting expedition. The eastern end of the island stretches out into Lake Superior like the fingers on your hand. A left hand, palm up, to be more precise. Our plan was the head north from the ferry dock at Rock Harbor (on the “pinkie”) to Lane Cove (the little bay near the  “thumb”) crossing the fingers of land on foot and paddling rafts across the sheltered waters between. Then we’d hike south, looping across the “palm” to return to Rock Harbor. Hiking would save miles of paddling. Paddling would save miles of hiking.

We turned a few heads hiking off into the forest by Rock Harbor; the rolled up rafts likely mistaken for tents, making the paddle and lifejackets we carried appear superfluous. But unconventional has advantages: our first 30-minute paddle across a fjord cut out over 11 miles of roundabout hiking.  The subsequent portage, with only 5 extra pounds on our backs, was hours faster than boating around the long way.  Wilderness travel has never been so efficient.

Portaging made easy
Duncan Bay was our true “can’t get there from here” destination. A boat-in-only campsite, it was miles through thick forest and marsh from the nearest trail and backpacker.  And anyone in a more traditional watercraft would have to endure either a brutal mile-long portage or brave the full fury of Lake Superior out past the exposed eastern tip of the island. Needless to say, we had the place to ourselves.  We celebrated our good fortune with the sixer of beer I had packed in – a weighty and practically unfathomable luxury on a more traditional hiking trip.  But what’s a boating trip without beer? We sunk the brews to the cool depths of the lake and retrieved them at dinnertime with a string. 

At bedtime we availed ourselves of the provided “bug proof” shelters but quickly discovered an active insurgency of mosquitos had infiltrated and overwhelmed our position. We set up the tent bodies inside the shelter to create a second line of defense. Ensconced in the mesh, we were able to spend the remainder of the evening enjoying the haunting sound of loon calls across the water.

Isle Royale is home to both wolf and moose and the isolation of the island has lent itself to the longest running predator-prey study in history. However, the current state of the relationship is ominous – the wolves have suffered health problems due to inbreeding, with only three genetic mutants left. Without the wolves to keep them in check, the moose are in danger of eating themselves out of a home; massive starvation is predicted. Despite warning signs for a decade, the Park Service has just announced plans for an “impact study” that in proper bureaucratic fashion will take two years to complete. I think the wolves will be gone by then...

Undeterred by the dismal prospects, we set off on an evening paddle up a lily pad choked creek, lined with grass, alder, and balsam fir – a veritable moose buffet. And a moose buffet could easily turn into a wolf buffet, or so our thinking went. We saw loons fishing to feed their loonlings, a busy beaver, and a mohawked merganser with a dozen chicks in tow. But we turned around before we saw any wolf or moose due to the island’s other important predator-prey relationship, that between inflated PVC and sharp submerged sticks. The creek became increasingly “woody” and we couldn’t afford a major decline in the local packraft population.

Our dash across the top of Isle Royale to Lane Cove briefly left us open to a southerly wind off Lake Superior. We waited on shore for over an hour, hoping the whitecaps would die down and dreading the bushwacking prospects if they didn’t. We caught a small lull and went for it. The swell was still running and I was impressed with the seaworthiness of the little packrafts. Yet I got to thinking about our pre-trip planning and I was glad that Marty and Earl tempered my youthful ambition for a more aggressive paddling itinerary. It took me less than a half-mile on the big water to realize that Lake Superior is not to be trifled with.

After camping at Lane Cove we stowed our rafts for the longest overland portion of the trip, six miles crossing Isle Royale north to south to complete our loop.  We detoured up Mount Franklin to enjoy bird's-eye views of some of the waterways we had previously paddled. The Greenstone Ridge Trail was lightly travelled along its eastern end and overgrown with shoulder high berry bushes not yet ripe enough to eat. But Earl and Marty spotted early wild strawberries that packed an intense flavor despite their diminutive size. 

Organic strawberries

When we reached the island’s south shore, our original plan had been to hike the remaining three miles along the coast back to Rock Harbor. It was a clear day with vivid turquoise in the shallows. The gentle breeze was in a favorable direction, promising minimal effort on our part. We made a spur of the moment decision to enjoy a lazy paddle, made possible by the flexibility of packrafting. I inflated the boat and plopped in the water, lounging in the sun like the amphibian adventurer I had become.

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