Hiking Isle Royale

 My father, brother, and I climbed Isle Royale’s 1,394-foot Mount Desor in June of 1959 in the process of hiking the island’s length. That first night, we were half-sleep in a three-sided lean-to with distant flashes of lightning reflecting off a dark, wind-rippled lake. A sudden storm was sweeping in and the loon calls were eerily sorrowful. An eight-foot moose waded offshore, almost invisible in deepening dusk. Quiet campfire flames had died to glowing embers as I drifted off thinking about the day. 

Earlier that afternoon, atop the island’s highest mountain, I could see Canada fifteen miles away in the distance across Lake Superior. We were exhausted and soaked to the skin, having hiked and climbed five hours through rain from Windigo Bay on the island’s western tip. I had never gazed across such a great distance. This was my first mountain hike into primitive wilderness on hallowed ground only Native Americans and fur-traders once traversed. There were no humans for miles. We had been told to avoid a pack of fifty wolves and several-hundred moose roaming about, but how one does this was never clear. 

My father was rummaging in a backpack, my brother and I crouching with aching limbs, out of breath, facing opposite directions. I had never heard Dave so deeply tired exclaim, “Hey, you won’t believe this, but there’s a coyote or fox, or maybe a wolf-pup, staring at us only twenty yards away. Take a look.” I was too worn out to turn around. Wolves had crossed from Canada on an ice sheet years earlier. We weren’t in a hurry to come upon wolves, or moose, armed with only jack knives. But a wolf pup might belong to a wolf pack. I finally turned around to see what it looked like, but it was gone. 

Unclipping a canteen of water purified with Halizone, I took a gulp, forgetting I had also added a fizzy grape-flavored Kool-Aid tablet to kill its taste. The result was something between grape juice and battery acid. I poured a bit into a cupped hand, discovering flakes of metal. Either the Kool-Aid tablet or the Halizone was corroding the inside of the metal canteen, but I needed water and didn’t care right then. 

After Boy Scout camping, hiking the length of Isle Royale was a real challenge. We planned to traverse its 55 mile length on the Greenstone Ridge Trail in five days, the same distance south to the Keweenaw Peninsula across Lake Superior. Two days before, we had departed Copper Harbor crossing the world’s third-largest fresh water lake that would later sink the ore-freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. But we were on a 40-foot under-powered launch unimaginatively named the Isle Royale. A five-hour rolling ride had us sea-sick long before the island’s eastern end at Rock Harbor. 

After setting up base camp and boarding a daily launch to the island’s west end, we headed up the trail planning to descend each night to a shelter at a remote lake. We left Windigo Bay with full canteens, but they were empty by mid-morning. Personal water-filtration systems had yet to be invented, so we planned to boil our water each night. By that first mid-morning, we gave up and simply filtered stream water through a handkerchief before adding more tablets of Halizone. Although Giardia Lambia intestinal parasites must have been in the water, they were unknown at the time. So, fortunately, none of us became ill. To carry less food and reduce pack weight, we planned to fish for dinner so our packs were heaviest before we began using canned food. Climbing Mount Desor with 65-pound loads on our backs didn’t begin well, plagued as we were by a fine drizzle and swarms of blood-sucking black flies. We hadn’t planned on a muddy trail and poor footing, trying to ascend a mountain before mid-day. We thought we had conditioned ourselves, weeks before, by carrying fifty pounds of boulders in backpacks around the neighborhood but, no, we were woefully out of shape. 

Two hours before Desor’s summit, still carrying our heaviest loads, my father came upon a moose antler on the ground, a perfect hiking memento. To our astonishment, he decided to carry the extra weight and hang it on his office wall. The black flies were driving us mad, circling just out of reach before alighting and drawing quick bites. Blood was running down our faces despite spraying ourselves with ineffectual Citronella bug spray. That was before we donned last-resort beekeeper’s hats and tried to protect our hands with gloves. 

Skidding on a slippery trail for hours in rain and growing darkness, a twisted ankle or broken leg would have been disastrous. We were days from help if we mishandled a knife or hatchet, much less burned ourselves in a campfire. We might apply a tourniquet or bind a cut before dragging someone out, but no one was coming to help. Cell phones hadn’t been invented and there was no way of sending messages. Boy Scout training never included Indian smoke signals, and there was no one around to read them anyway. The nearest a seaplane could land was Windigo Bay, weather permitting, and that wasn’t going to happen unless my father had a heart attack, in which case it would be too late. 

We were on our own now, in the first bug-infested three-sided lean-to by Lake Chicken Bone. It wasn’t all that inviting with a leaky roof and muddy dirt floor. Too dog-tired to care, we needed food and warmth, but had outsmarted ourselves with only a few cans of food to eat. We couldn’t fish for dinner because the shoreline was overhung with underbrush. By minimizing pack loads and bringing only canned food, we couldn’t start a fire anyway with wet firewood to cook nonexistent fish. Without a campfire, our father lit a tiny camp stove with heat pellets, and boiled life-restoring, dried-package chicken noodle soup. That was before everyone realized, all too quickly, soup made with Halizone-laced water leaves something to be desired. 

1930’s Civilian Conservation Corp’s boys hadn’t put much effort into Isle Royale’s three-sided lean-to construction. We spread our sleeping bags on dirt, thankful it wasn’t muddier. In the 30’s, there were only a few depression-era hikers to stay in such a jerry-built construction. Besides, there wouldn’t be anybody to complain to three decades later. Our father apportioned out our chicken-Halizone water soup and we were ready to slide into sleeping bags when a Tarantula-like spider appeared atop mine. It was hairy brown with shiny black eyes and totally unafraid. I was readying a knife attack when my father simply shooed it away. I immediately fell asleep despite knowing it might well climb inside sometime in the night. 

We awoke the following morning to more loons calling across the water and no sign of moose or hairy spiders. Scrambling into bright sunlight, we breakfasted on dry cereal and canned orange juice without bothering with a morning fire. Wanting to hit the trail for a long day ahead, we shouldered backpacks and left to ascend Mount Desor once more and gain the Greenstone Ridge. 

The path runs the length of the heavily-forested island and, from Desor’s summit, appears to be the spine of a long green animal basking in a cold blue expanse of Lake Superior.

We had been looking for semi-precious greenstones, found in only two places on the globe, Isle Royale and 180 degrees away on the globe in South Africa, but found, instead, a field of wild strawberries and feasted on them for lunch. 

Our day ended at a second lake-side lean-to and another fight with wolf spiders. This second batch were more determined to stay comfortably dry inside the lean-to, apparently thinking it belonged to them and not itinerant hikers. However, we weren’t putting up with any spider-nonsense and attacked them with sticks and knives while they scurried about. Too late to fish, we used more precious canned goods; Spam, peaches, and baked beans. 

At the end of the third day, more than 30 miles northeast of Windigo Bay, we finally caught three pickerel for dinner. Slipping them on a stringer to stay fresh, we lit a campfire to fry them. No sooner had we turned our backs than seagulls swooped down for their share. We chased them off with more sticks, before dining on a great dinner of fresh pickerel. That night, there was another moose wading offshore in purple twilight. Although we had been taking pains to hang our backpacks on overhead branches so they wouldn’t attract animals, my brother somehow left his atop a picnic table this time instead of overhead on a tree branch. When we were fast asleep, campfire long dead, a fox tore into his pack and ate everything foxes like. Dave’s candy bars must have attracted it but, with all of Dave’s food gone, the next few days meant a reduced diet for everyone. 

We finally finished the fifty-mile, five-day adventure trek to Rock Harbor, having learned how little we knew about wilderness hiking. Anything more challenging would need better planning.




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