Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Day One on Isle Royale

Isle Royale continued

Before we get started I want to show you a few more maps that give a better idea of where I was on the island. As I have mentioned, Isle Royale is about 40 miles long and 9 miles wide at its widest point. As I was not there to backcountry camp but to work on restoring some of the structures on the northeast end of the island, I actually saw very little of the park. Most of the cottages are along Tobin Harbor, so that is where I spent my time.

The red box shows approximately where the closeup map below is located.

Purple line shows the water route to the dock for the Dassler Cabin and the location of the cabin. When the weather's good this is the most convenient route, but it is possible to get to Rock Harbor by going down Tobin Harbor. It is about 1/4 mile hike from the docks on Tobin Harbor to Rock Harbor so that route is avoided if there's lots of stuff to haul.

We had arrived at Rock Harbor around 2:40 pm, and within a half hour I was on my way to Scoville Point and the Dassler cabin with a skiff full of food and gear. Alan, our certified boat operator, was at the helm and I traveled with Mary, a veteran of the volunteer crew and our primary cook, although I had volunteered to cook three of our dinners.

The Ranger III at the Rock Harbor docks.

The day remained clear and relatively calm, and we had a pleasant 20 minute boat ride.

Rock Harbor Lodge. People pay A LOT of money to stay here!

We chugged along and I marveled at the scenery, all rocky and thick with black spruce. Before I knew it there was the Dassler cabin, perched upon its own little promontory across a small cove from Scoville Point.

The Dassler Cabins. Sleeping cabin is on the left, the main cabin on the right. I don't know why this image is so overexposed but it's the only one I got from this view.

The Dassler Cabin doesn't have its own dock. The one the Dasslers put in kept getting swept away by ice and storms, so we used one perhaps a quarter mile farther down Tobin Harbor that is also used for access to two other nearby cottages, one which is still occupied. Alan dropped Mary and I at the dock with all our gear and Rubbermaid tubs full of food and supplies and went back for more people. This was perhaps the most exhausting and treacherous part of the trip, carrying the bins over rocky, uneven ground all the way back to the cabin. We made four trips in all, three with bins and one with our gear. My arms hurt for two days!

The Dassler sleeping cabin, with the tip of Scoville Point on the right across the cove. This building has two rooms and is very bright inside, and if I ever won a residency on Isle Royale, this is where I'd spend most of my time. The sleeping cabin is about 25 yards from the main cabin.

The Dassler Cabin, as seen from the front, or water side. It's pretty dark inside, with its small windows, dark panelling and surrounded by trees. The trees cannot be cut as the cabin is in a wilderness area. This covered area served as our dish washing station. 

There is of course no running water, so all water consumed must be filtered. We'd bring water up from the cove and have water filtering parties. There is a filtration system set up inside but it wasn't working properly--one of the tasks on our list for the week was to clean it up and get it going again. I had brought my gravity-style filter, where you fill up the top bag, open a valve, and the water flows down through the filter into the bottom bag--or in our case, a bucket. Needless to say this is much less work and I spent a lot of my free time filtering water.

Alan, Liz and Roger filter water behind the Dassler Cabin.

After dinner I had some time to explore the cove. I'd been told a loon had been hanging out there for several days, and I'd noticed a few other water birds, so I went down and sat on the rocky shore.

Cove near Dassler cabin.

Dassler sleeping cabin. There is a bedroom in the main cabin as well.

The loon was not at all bothered by my presence, and came quite close to me.

Common loon. Their calls rang out across the cold water at all hours of the day and night. I woke several times that first night to their haunting songs.

As I sat, the other birds swam slowly closer and closer. They seemed more ill at ease with the loon's presence than mine. These turned out to be a new bird for me--Red-breasted mergansers. I love the wispy little feathers sticking out from the backs of their heads.

Life-list birds! Red-breasted mergansers.

Back up by the cabin I walked to the Tobin Harbor side to watch the sun set. I don't think there's ever been a better place to put a bench.

Dassler cabin bench, with the point of Smith Island on the left.

It took only six hours for me to fall in love with this place.

Sunset over Tobin Harbor.

We were warned about the voracity of the mosquitoes after dark, so I made my way back to my tent site. The moose kept this area clear of trees. There were five or six of us camping in this general area, but I think that is not going to be allowed in the future. There are occasionally hikers that come down this way and the park staff are left to explain why there are folks camping here. I crawled into bed listening to the songs of the White-throated sparrows, who sang long into the night, then started again early the next morning.

My campsite.

Next: Day two, and a hike to Lookout Louise

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sailing to Isle Royale

 Isle Royale continued

After a lousy night's sleep, Tuesday morning seemed to come very early. I showered, checked my gear one more time and headed down to the docks to await our departure. I did not arrive late but everyone else was early, as there was no where to park when I got there. I had eight or nine Rubbermaid tubs full of food with me--our crew leader, John Dunn, was already on the island, and since I had a full size van I volunteered to haul some of the food. Once I got that and my gear unloaded the Parks folks found me a place to park, squeezed between a bus and a staircase. I had to leave my keys in case they needed to move my van, which was fine with me as that way I couldn't lose them on the island.

Passengers wait to board the Ranger III

The volunteer program is a pretty nifty thing. For $200 for food for seven days and a $100 donation to IRKPA, you get an all-inclusive trip to the island. It cost about $200 in gas there and back, so all in all it was a pretty cheap trip. While the park provides us with a small skiff (16' aluminum boat with a 25 horse motor) to transport people and gear to the work sites, there is always the possibility that the water will be too rough for that to happen, so volunteers are encouraged to only pack what they can carry the two miles from Rock Harbor to the Dassler Cabin, where we were to camp. That's the other thing--only about half of us got to sleep indoors. The rest had to pitch tents in the backcountry, myself included. I was able to pack a few luxuries as I didn't have to pack food, but I still had to be very choosy.

After a safety demonstration and short talk about the boat and trip, we boarded, and left the docks around 8:30 am. It was a cloudy day in Houghton, a gorgeous little town and home to Michigan Tech, but the waters were calm. Thankfully, blessedly calm. The Ranger III is known as the "Barf Barge", and for good reason. Everyone I talked to encouraged me to get Dramamine, although I never had to take it.

Houghton, Michigan from the Ranger III.

We passed under the amazing Portage Lake lift bridge, which links Houghton with Hancock on the far side of the "lake". (The lake is actually kind of a canal that cuts the Keweenaw Peninsula in half--the northern end of the Keweenaw is an island.) Instead of splitting in half and lifting up like a drawbridge, this piece of engineering wonder lifts the roadbed straight up, the ends riding on rails on the towers. How perfectly square this thing has to be to work properly. I was dully impressed.

The Portage Lake lift bridge.

As we made our way west the skies cleared and the sun shone down.

Portage Lake, Keweenaw Peninsula

It took about an hour to make our way down the canal and out into the cold waters of Lake Superior. At the end of a breakwater stood the Upper Entrance Light. The skies remained clear and the lake like glass. I could have done a jig right there on the rear deck I was so happy. This was the part of the trip that had me the most worried about, and it looked like we were in for very smooth sailing. We still had good cell service here, so the last calls were made back home, I posted a few pictures on Facebook, then I turned off my phone and put it away. There would be no communication with home for seven days.

Upper Entrance Light, Keweenaw Peninsula

Less than a quarter mile onto Superior a thick fog engulfed us. It was a the strangest sensation, sailing through this thick white blanket while the sun shone down. We couldn't see more that a few tenths of a mile, if that, and the boat's fog horn blared at regular intervals. But the waters remained calm, and after a few hours one of the Park Service employees, a fellow named Paul, and Rolf and Candy Peterson's son (of the famed Isle Royale Wolf Study), whose name now escapes me, put on an impromptu concert on the rear deck.

A joyful noise!

While the guys were still playing I wandered off, and noticed, off our port side, land just visible through the now thinning fog. Isle Royale was in sight!

Land Ho!

Isle Royale lies in the northwest end of Lake Superior, much nearer to Canada and Minnesota than Michigan. The map below shows the layout of the island, which is about 40 miles long and nine miles wide at its widest point. It is actually tilted up more than this, but for the sake of fitting in on a map it's been turned clockwise a bit.

Isle Royale map. Click for a larger image

I cropped the map to give a better idea of the route the Ranger III takes (highlighted in purple).

The Ranger III sails past the lighthouse, then stops at Mott Island to drop off people and supplies at the headquarters, then continues on to Rock Harbor.

As we neared the island the lighthouse came into view. As far as I know it is no longer operational, although it has has been restored. Around the corner to the left is the Edison Fisheries and Rolf and Candy Peterson's headquarters, which we'll visit later.

Isle Royale Lighthouse

The main island is surrounded by 450 smaller islands, some bare rock and some with vegetation. The soil is extremely thin here, and it takes a long time for plants to get established.

We stopped at Mott Island for about a half hour, and decided to disembark and look around. This is Sarah, a woman I met on the boat, who was not part of our team. Sarah is a retired nurse, and was spending several months sightseeing the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions. She had never been backcountry camping before, but had decided to embark on a seven day hike, with borrowed gear and Walmart specials. I was concerned about her, and made her promise that I would see her on the boat in a week. Quite a gutsy woman, there.

Sarah at the headquarters sign.

We continued on through Rock Harbor. The day was cool, clear and calm.

Rock Harbor

Finally we reached the Rock Harbor facilities. This is where most people go, and stay, when they visit the island. The Ranger III docks here overnight, then heads back to the Keweenaw Wednesday morning, then repeats the trip Friday/Saturday. Here you'll find a gift shop/convenience store, the island headquarters, the lodges and two restaurants. While the vast majority of the island is designated wilderness, the area around Rock Harbor is not.

Rock Harbor facilities and docks.

We disembarked, gathered up our gear and crew, and began loading up our skiff for the next leg of our journey, the trip to Scoville Point and the Dassler cabin (next).

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Laughing Whitefish Falls

I have to start with a confession. In the last post I included a map of the Eastern UP. On it I marked the location of Wagner Falls. I was TOTALLY wrong. Wagner Falls is south of Munising (headquarters for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore), not south of Marquette, where I placed it. I made my stop at Wagner Falls, then drove east on M-94 to Laughing Whitefish Falls, THEN went to Marquette for lunch. (I must have been pretty dang hungry by then!) So there is now a corrected map in my last post, and I have scanned a Michigan map and marked the locations of the falls, as well as my route across the UP, in yellow.

A lesson in geography, this has been, and how tricksy our memories can be.


...after leaving Wagner Falls I drove west on M-94 to Laughing Whitefish Falls. Hyped to be the prettiest falls in the UP, I couldn't pass it up. The falls are less than a mile hike from the parking area, and when I pulled up I was the only one there. I drenched myself with bug spray and hit the trail.

Sign at the trail head.

According to the sign, the falls are named after Laughing Whitefish Point, where the Laughing Whitefish River flows into Lake Superior. The Ojibwa thought the point looked like a laughing fish when seen from the water. I'm not sure I've ever seen a fish laugh, but evidently the Ojibwa had.

The trail was in pretty good condition, although I could not say the same for the North Country Trail, which intersects it and runs along the escarpment.

North Country Trail.

There was not much to see along the first part of the trail, but as I rounded a bend I was plunged into a fairy forest. Acres of ferns grew under the open canopy.

Cinnamon fern?

There were lots of wildflowers still in bloom, including these yellow lady's slippers.

Yellow lady's slippers

Farther along the trail was this huge patch of maidenhair fern. I've never seen so many in one place before.

Maidenhair fern

Upon reaching the falls, I was unimpressed with the view from the overlook, so I walked upstream to try to get the perspective of the immense drop off and the valley beyond.

The Laughing Whitefish River takes the plunge.

There are stairs leading down into the valley which afforded much better views of the falls.

Laughing Whitefish Falls

Down at the bottom you can see the full expanse of the falls. In wetter times this whole limestone face is covered with whitewater. There was water there, but barely a trickle. It's all in the timing.

Laughing Whitefish Falls.

Leaving the falls I drove up to Marquette, had lunch at Sweet Water Cafe, then headed west on US 41 towards the Keweenaw Peninsula. I have been all the way to the Porcupine Mountains in the Western UP, but I had never been up to the Keweenaw. It was a warm day for the UP, mid-80's, and some storms blew up as I drove west.

Map showing route from Marquette to Houghton. Achingly beautiful country up here.

But once I reached the Keweenaw Bay the temperature dropped by at least 15 degrees, they skies cleared, and I had to put on a jacket and gloves to walk down to the water. All through the U.P. I had seen lilacs in bloom, which was about two weeks behind where we were downstate. But up here on the shores of the Keweenaw, near the cold waters of Lake Superior, the trees were only just beginning to leaf out.

Tiny maple leaves along the shores of Keweenaw Bay.

Keweenaw Bay

From here I drove up to Houghton, where the Ranger III would take us on our journey across Superior to Isle Royale. I spent some time exploring town, getting a few last-minute supplies at the local grocery (including Dramamine) and went for a walk at the Nara Nature Preserve. I walked along a dilapidated boardwalk though invasive plants next to the Pilgrim River, but I did see some birds, including this Common yellowthroat, a bird I have still not gotten a decent image of.

I stayed at a motel (don't recall the name) so I would have one last shower before spending seven days on the island. I made some last minute changes to what I was bringing, then tried to get a good night's sleep. I failed miserably.

Next: The Ranger III and Isle Royale

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Isle Royale, Here We Come!

Back in June of this year I worked with a volunteer crew on Isle Royale National Park. The group's mission is to restore and maintain the numerous cabins and cottages located on the north-east end of the island.

For those unfamiliar with Isle Royale, it is located in the north-west corner of Lake Superior. While it is only about 20 miles from the shores of Minnesota and Canada, it is officially Michigan territory. It holds a long history of human presence, mostly involved with the mining of copper. Both Native Americans and Europeans mined the island, with some pits dating back 5700 years. Logging and mining by Europeans and Americans left the island badly scarred, but once it was established as a National Park in 1940 those activities ceased, and the island began to recover.

Isle Royale National Park in relation to Michigan. How in the heck did we end up with it??

During the copper mining years many homes were built on the island as well as several resorts, primarily in proximity to Rock Harbor. Families who owned property on the island when it became Federal land were allowed to lease their property for as long as whichever family member whose name was on the lease lived. Today there are still a handful of properties with active residents, all of whom were children when their leases were signed, but most of the homes are empty. The Park Service tore many down over the years, but more recently a push has been made to preserve the structures for their historical significance. The Isle Royale & Keweenaw Parks Association works with the National Park Service to maintain the buildings, one of which is used for the Artist-In-Residence program.

Most of the island is now designated a wilderness area, although the area surrounding Rock Harbor and its shops and lodge is not. Most of the homes do fall within the wilderness, so there are some limitations as to what can be done to and around the homes. Cutting of trees is a big no-no, unless they threaten the stability of the structures. Our work focused primarily on painting, re-roofing, debris removal and some minor structural repairs. Major work, like shoring up foundations, is done by professionals. I'll talk more about the island as we make our way along this journey.

That journey began for me on Sunday June 9th, 2013, a day after I did a show in Kalamazoo. My original plan had been to drive all day Monday to Houghton, in the Keweenaw Peninsula, where the Ranger III departs for Isle Royale. A friend convinced me to leave Sunday if I could (it's a 10 hour drive) and the more I thought about it the better that idea sounded. If I could get across the Mackinaw Bridge Sunday, I would have time Monday to do a little exploring across the U.P.

I crossed the Mighty Mac around 7:30 in the evening, and stopped at the Straits State Park in St. Ignace. It's a nice campground with a gorgeous view of the bridge, but it's loud there as you hear all the traffic noise.

The Mackinaw Bridge from Straits State Park

I slept in the back of the van, which made getting in and out of the campground pretty painless. I was on the road Monday by 6:30 am, and drove west on US 2, which runs along the southern shore of the U.P., on Lake Michigan. I had never been farther west on US 2 than M-77, which runs north to the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, so I decided to drive over to Manistique, then take M-94 north towards Marquette. It was a little out of the way, but I wanted to do some sightseeing.

Eastern UP. This is an updated map as I had the wrong location for Wagner Falls. The hazard of waiting six months to write about something!

I pulled off at a nice little roadside park in Manistique and took the obligatory lighthouse photo, then walked down to the beach.

The Manistique Light

The shoreline along Lake Michigan varies here in the U.P. Much of it is sandy, but then you come across these areas where it's all sandstone. I was fascinated by how it brakes into rectangular chunks.

Manistique beach.

There were a great number of Common mergansers in the area.

From Manistique I drove north towards Marquette, planning to stop and see Wagner Falls, then head into town to have lunch at one of the best darn restaurants anywhere, Sweet Water Cafe. I had noticed a National Forest campground on the map off of M-94 and stopped for a look and a few quick photos. I say quick because the mosquitoes were just horrific. I must have had 20 follow me into the van. It would be a wonderful place to camp--but maybe not in June.

Indian River, Hiawatha National Forest

I reached Wagner Falls around noon, and the parking area was pretty full, but by the time I got my camera and had applied a liberal coating of bug spray, several people had left. As I made my way towards the falls, two more groups passed me, and by the time I reached the falls I was all alone.

Tiny falls downstream.

I wasn't there at the best time of day as far as the lighting goes, and I was without a tripod, but I made the best of what I had and managed to get a few long exposures by resting the camera on the boardwalk railing.

Wagner Falls

I stayed for 10 or 15 minutes, enjoying the sounds of rushing water, Red-eyed vireos and solitude, while the mosquitoes nibbled my ankles, which were exposed when I squatted to take pictures.

Next: Second half of my drive across the U.P., with a stop at Laughing Whitefish Falls.