Isle Royale National Park: Berries galore and so much more
Heavy fog blanketed the harbor as we stood on the dock on the morning of Aug. 12. The crew of the Voyageur II ferry worked fast to prepare for our departure from the Grand Portage harbor.
"All aboard!" I heard the captain shout. One by one we handed over our backpacks to a shipmate. We sat in the lower deck and watched as Lake Superior brought our boat to life.
"Here we go," I thought, as I looked at my husband sitting across from me. We were headed to the largest island on the largest fresh water lake in the world - Isle Royale National Park.
I traveled with my husband, Ben, and our two friends, Sam Maass and Lisa Brien.
Isle Royale is located in the northwest waters of Lake Superior. It is no small island. It is 45 miles long and only accessible by boat or floatplane.
Calm waters allowed the ferry to take less than three hours from Grand Portage, Minn., to Washington Harbor, the gateway to our starting point at the Windigo visitor center.
A naturalist greeted us upon our arrival and told us the rules of the island.
"Oh, and keep your distance from moose and wolves," she said as we headed to the woods.
A study of wolves and moose on Isle Royale has been going on for over 45 years, and is the longest running large animal predator-prey study on earth.
We hoped we'd see both moose and wolves.
It was a four-day, three-night trip. We hiked the Feldtman Loop, a 30-mile loop on the western half of the island. The trails are narrow and marked with animal sign, including moose droppings.
Between the four of us we carried a combined weight of 160 pounds.
No one carried more than Sam, who carried a 50-pound pack. He was also the only one who had been to the island before.
We tried to convince Sam to leave those extra bags of trail mix, graham crackers and pancake mix, but he assured us his father would've had him carry more. He must've been okay, however, as he never complained once.
From Windigo, we began our hike eastward along the Greenstone Ridge, which formed the backbone of Isle Royale. What started out as a wide grassy trail soon turned narrow with rocks and roots. The ridge is thought by many geologists to be a portion of the largest lava flow on earth.
It certainly felt hot enough to have lava, I thought. We picked a week of sunny blue skies and temperatures in the upper 70s, but the sun felt extra hot on the ridge.
The first day was tough. My body wasn't used to hiking up and down ridges with an extra 35 pounds of weight on my hips.
When we reached Sugar Mountain at 1,360 feet, about two miles from our destination, sweat was pouring off our foreheads. We had been hiking at a pace of almost three miles an hour. After a break for lunch we resumed a doable pace of two miles an hour.
We arrived at our first campsite earlier than expected, which gave us plenty of time to set up camp, purify water, cook dinner, and share good laughs around the campfire.
Adventures on foot
Lisa had packed a small shovel in her pack in case we needed to dig "cat holes" in the woods to relieve ourselves. Much to my surprise, each of our campsites had outhouses - some even with toilet paper.
"If you need toilet paper use thimbleberry leaves or large leaf aster," I told my friends. There were no takers.
We hiked anywhere from six to almost 11 miles a day in the full sun. The trails were beautiful and fun to hike. We crossed bridges, boardwalks, prairies, beaches and birch forests and saw breathtaking views on the ridges.
By the time we reached a campsite, we were sweating buckets and in dire need to remove our packs from our bodies. Each of us went through at least two liters of water a day.
When we reached Siskiwit Bay on the second day, we agreed we didn't care how cold Lake Superior was, we were going swimming. It was cold - probably around 40 degrees, but refreshing.
That night we watched a spectacular sunset before heading to bed. We were also visited by a curious ermine, a small, ferret-like weasel that turns white in the winter.
We made it to Feldtman Lake on the third day. It was a beautiful inland lake, but its bottom was mucky and weedy. We didn't swim much, but in the evening, Sam did some catch-and-release fishing and caught a nice northern pike.
Oodles of berries
I can't understand why there are no black bears on Isle Royale - I could smell the berries from the ferry. It would be worth the swim, I thought.
Four delicious north woods berries were in full bloom at our feet as we hiked: thimbleberries, blackberries, raspberries and cranberries.
I couldn't get enough of the thimbleberries. Their name is representative in that a person could put a thimbleberry on her finger like a thimble.
Non-edible berries such as bunchberry, blue-bead lily, and wild sarsaparilla also competed for our attention.
Yes, it's true. We ate peanut butter and jelly pancakes for breakfast and lunch one day.
Sam learned at a young age from his father that peanut butter, jelly and pancake mix were essentials on overnight camping trips. Naturally, Sam convinced us making peanut butter and jelly pancake sandwiches would be easy to carry and good for carbohydrates.
So, we ate them and they weren't bad. Actually, they were the least of our food problems.
Sam had also packed two pounds of couscous, which when put into boiling water, turns into moistened wheat granules. At 650 calories per serving, Sam recommended we cook it.
None of us had ever eaten couscous before, and we soon learned it was completely tasteless. We looked at the heaping pot of couscous and agreed to open two packets of pudding mix instead. We should've brought salt, I guess.
Despite a few quirky food items, we ate well. We had oatmeal, granola and pancakes for breakfasts; crackers and cheese and trail mix for lunches; and warm, delicious dinners at night.
Isle Royale has an incredible story to it, one that is best told by experiencing it yourself. Its uniqueness brought about its designation as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980.
It would have taken us more than a week to hike all 165 miles of trails on the island, but it gave us a reason to visit again.
We didn't see moose or hear any wolves, but we challenged our physical abilities and deepened our friendship. We strengthened our hiking muscles and rubbed in a few blisters. We had no rain and swatted only a few mosquitoes.
The island is worth visiting.