Life Lessons

Isle Royale: A Lesson In Not Giving Up

When I was in my mid 20’s I spent 7 days on Isle Royale. A buddy and I hiked the length – 45 miles end to end. For those of you who don’t know, Isle Royal is a U.S. National Park in the west end of Lake Superior between Upper Michigan and Canada. It is an amazing place. It is rocky and rugged with steep ridges and valleys littered with hiking trails throughout. I have both hiked and canoed Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota and many trails in the Keweenaw of Michigan. Isle Royale was both the most difficult and the most enjoyable hike I have ever taken.

We began our journey to the island on the Ranger III that leaves out of Houghton, Michigan. It was a 4-5 hour float and we docked at Rock Harbor early in the afternoon and from there hired a private boat to take us as near to the very northern tip of the island, Blake Point, as we could get then we hiked the rest of the way to the tip. We arrived there just before sunset and the mosquitoes were so horrible that we ate, pitched the tent and went to sleep knowing we had a very long 40 mile journey ahead.

This was not a hike for the faint of heart and with 30-40 pounds on your back the trek seemed nearly impossible. We started out around 8am and since there is no trail out to Blake Point we had to bushwhack the first leg of our journey till we met up with the Greenstone Ridge trail near Lookout Louise. It was an incredibly difficult hike with deep gorges and fallen trees and some pretty dense underbrush. It is only about 3-4 miles but it took until early afternoon to reach the main trail that runs the center ridge of the island. This was just a glimpse of how tough the journey would be. We took the Greenstone Ridge trail to just east of the center of the island before turning north onto the Minong Ridge trail following Lake Superior and then into Windigo on the west end of the island.

The trails were for the most part well marked, (except on the Minong), and while some were relatively easy and good for day hikes, many trails were a constant climbing and descending, ridge after ridge, steep and rocky and slippery when wet. The Minong Ridge trail meanders through rocky outcroppings and dense forests and wet, dank swamps. Your feet will get wet. One portion of the trail that went directly through a bog consisted of long timbers floating side-by-side between two posts driven into the muddy bottom. At the start of this ‘floating trail’ there were several walking sticks leaned up against a tree for hikers to use as they went across. The logs were literally floating and when you stepped on them they would sink a bit so that your foot would be completely underwater, then you’d step onto the log next to it and it would sink so you were walking on the logs through the water as they sank all the while balancing with the walking stick that you were glad you grabbed at the start. I had never seen a trail like this before and the cool water felt great on my sore feet so I didn’t mind too much. After a bit of drying out on the other side and a dry pair of socks, we moved on…sure to leave the walking stick for others to use.

Now, I don’t know if my friend just wanted to be done with hiking, was tired of wet clothes and equipment, (it had been raining for much of this trip), or was just a glutton for punishment but we finished the entire hike in 4 days. Not kidding…every time we would get to our planned stopping point, (we had the trip planned out for a 6 day hike), he would say, “come on…we can make it to the next campground”. Eventually the ‘next campground’ became the shelter we had reserved at Windigo and another 6 or more miles on top of an already 12 mile hike that day. We arrived just as the sun was setting that 4th night and crashed. For the remaining 3 days we did virtually nothing but air out our packs and rest our beaten feet. We did take a day hike around the Feldtmann Ridge trail just so we could say that we hiked the length of the island. It was an amazing week. Early in the morning on the last day we boarded the sea plane in Windigo, along with 2 other hikers and took off for home. I learned how not to give up on this trip and that every journey is just a series of steps. Just keep moving and you’ll reach the end eventually.

There is a lot more to this week that I could share but 20 years has had an effect on my memory and the films from the camera that I had with me got lost in the unpacking and I have never found them. All I really have left is the map we used with some scribbled notes on it and a journal I kept during the trek that was more a record of a spiritual journey for me than notes on the hike itself. We saw no wolves and did not hear any either. We did see moose…one big bull moose eating the leaves off of a bush on the Greenstone Ridge trail in full velvet glistening in the pouring rain. That was a sight to see! We also saw a cow moose with her young calf near the swamps on the Minong Ridge…we made sure not to get too near the pair. We would see the occasional hikers on treks such as ours and stop and chat for a bit then move on. The scenery was amazing and I have yet to see another place in the U.S. that compares. It was a workout for sure, but the time was very well spent with a good friend a Bible and a pen. That was really my first “been there, done that” moment…and it felt great!


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