Trail/Park: Isle Royale National Park
Wet is a relative thing. At some point an outdoors person starts accepting that everything you own is going to be wet. I think I knew that my clothes and gear weren’t going to magically dry out overnight. But I’d hoped. Jimmy and Brianna were off to meet the ferry and I’d offered to sweep out the shelter before I left. The thought of another day of hiking in the rain wasn’t appealing, but I didn’t really have a choice.
Right here at the front end of my trip, I was a full day of hiking behind and had no idea how I’d make that up. I decided that I’d figure it out along the way. The worst thing that would happen would be me getting up really early the last day and hiking as fast as I could to the ferry before it arrived in the early afternoon. At my current pace that would be a stretch.
A New Perspective on Mud
I gave myself the luxury of taking it a bit slower though. I took the Tobin Harbor Trail toward Daisy Farm to start. The trail is pretty level and heads toward Mt. Franklin. With the rain the foliage was flourishing, lining the trail with green and blooms. Rain has another wonderful effect, leading to beautiful, deep swaths of mud. I remember thinking that I thought I’d known what trail mud was hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail two summers previous. Nope. Not even close.
I took the intersecting trail to the Rock Harbor Trail and was just getting used to the mud, when it gave way to the big, sloping rock faces that had become slick in the rain. Between the mud and rocks, I found myself falling down a few times. Each slip or fall added to my feelings of frustration. Made me wonder what the hell I’d gotten myself into. What ever gave me the idea that this was a good idea or that it would be fun. Truth be told, the excitement was wearing off and I was scared that I was in way over my head. But I also didn’t consider that I had a choice to do anything but keep going.
I’d learned perseverance in the year preparing for and taking that hike at Philmont with my son. To know that you’ve taken on something that’s out of your comfort zone but you keep working at it. To have talked about this trip with so many people that it would be hard to back out. In this case, my way “out” was 40 miles away and the only way I was getting there was on foot.
Coming to Terms with My Pace
Every mile took longer than I’d expected. I had calculated that I could cover about two miles an hour. The reality? I was only hiking about a mile an hour because the terrain was more challenging than I’d expected. And the rain just kept coming enhancing those vast swaths of mud in the breaks between the slick rock. Somewhere on that wet slog toward Daisy Farm, I resigned myself to the fact that everything I owned was going to be wet and covered in mud. It was humbling to know that all of my carefully planned itinerary was going to be tested to the brink of my comfort.
For me another interesting element about Isle Royale perspective on distance. On other hikes, I’d been able to use a point in the distance as a marker that would show me how far I’d come. On the Superior Hiking Trail there is a section on approach to the Split Rock Lighthouse where you see the lighthouse in the distance ahead of you. Then it disappears only to reappear miles later nearly in front of you. Then it disappears and the next thing you know, it’s behind you, again a tiny spec. Isle Royale is less obvious in those waypoints. On the Rock Harbor Trail, this day I had views of one of the island’s lighthouse landmarks, but it didn’t feel the same. Perhaps it was my attitude, but that lighthouse took forever to come into close proximity.
Getting Comfortable Talking to Strangers
When I finally made it to Daisy Farm, I was greeted by another campground packed with people. I again searched for a spot in a shelter. The campground had plenty of trees for a hammock, but every square inch of ground was covered in a thick layer of mud and I wasn’t up for the work required to set up and crawl into my hammock.
I moved through the campground looking for a shelter that wasn’t “too” full. The situation forced me to do something that I don’t like doing again – talking to complete strangers and being vulnerable enough to ask for their kindness. I’d assumed that the people I’d meet would be kind because of how hard it is to get to the park. But I also wanted to make this trip “on my own”. Once again, being a solo hiker afforded me the luxury of being a minimal disruption and I was able to talk my way into a shelter with a man and his adult nephew and niece.
I gratefully dropped down and started removing some of my wet layers, hanging up what I could, without taking up too much space. We made small talk about the incessant rain, speculating if it would it dry out tomorrow. Wondering how dry could our things possibly get by morning. I made my dinner and crawled into my sleeping bag for a bit of warmth. These shelter mates were awesome and it turned out that the gentleman had been to Philmont so we had things to talk about. As we chatted it grew dark. I got up to move my pack and out ran a mouse.
At that moment I was grateful for the unforgiving bear vault that was taking up space and weighing me down. A second later, as I watched the mouse run across the shelter floor, I realized that my shelter mates had all of their food laid haphazardly across the floor. I asked if they had a animal proofing plan for their food. The response was that they didn’t because they were told there aren’t bears on Isle Royale. That’s true. At least not the brown bear kind. I suggested that getting their food up, even in a dry bag, would be a good idea so they didn’t lose it to the smallest of bear (we called mice “mini bears” at Philmont).
I journaled for a bit and then decided it would be best to be rested for the morning. As I drifted off to sleep I thought about how my solo adventure was not going as well as I’d hoped, but that having the kindness of others was making it much better. Being on my own in cruddy weather had opened me to the possibility of meeting new people. Having company was helping to lift my spirits from the funk that had started settling in while I was on trail. It was unexpected. It was appreciated.
- Learn how to read elevation changes on a topographic map. It’s a skill that I thought I had, reading those topographic lines on the map, but in practice it was a completely different thing. Had I really known how to visualize what those lines meant in relation to my hiking pace, I’d have given myself more time to accomplish my goal.
- Embrace being dirty. Really really dirty. Because you will be.
- Embrace being wet when it happens. You’ll be happier for it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help from total strangers. It’s contrary to what we’re taught, but there is tremendous power in vulnerability, especially in places like Isle Royale.
- Don’t be afraid to speak up and offer a perspective. Know it might be disregarded or it might be appreciated. You won’t know until you do.
- Mini bears are a thing. So even if you don’t expect to see any of the 500 lb. kind, you still need to plan to protect your food and belongings from other creatures that might be hungry.
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