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).

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