Return From Minong
(Isle Royale N.P.)
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” ~ Socrates
From the rear deck of the ferry, the emerald island was getting smaller and smaller. For me, I was looking at the past revisited. When I could no longer see the place whose magic had once brought me back for six consecutive seasons, I staggered to the bow of the ferry and kept a sharp eye on the horizon, waiting for the mainland of Michigan to be born to my view. Until its appearance, I would be in purgatory, a time when neither Isle Royale nor the mainland was visible—just the vast blue wonder of Lake Superior.
In that purgatory, I again reflected on my past adventures at this most remote national park, an island nestled in the northwest portion of the largest freshwater lake in the world. In those six seasons, I served at all four ranger stations: Windigo, Rock Harbor, Amygdaloid, and my favorite, Malone Bay.
“Those are the memories that make me a wealthy soul.” ~ Bob Seger
Lake Superior, like a god, was the dominating force of Isle Royale. A force that had introduced
me to panic, an emotion that had often haunted my dreams and had knocked at my door of
consciousness. There had been times when I was alone in the boat, caught in fog and wind, that I was tempted to cover my eyes and scream, but I had not. With time and experience, the
nightmares had faded and confidence had built. I wondered what role overcoming this fear had
played in luring me back to Isle Royale again and again until I learned that I could not function
in Lake Superior’s might, but I could around it. During those six seasons, I had booked over a
thousand hours of boat operation on her surface without mishap, done my job, and was leaving unscathed. Perhaps now I could feel free from her challenge and go to the porch in peace. Time would tell.
I remembered the love-hate relationship with the island that Chief Ranger Larry Kangas had first warned me of, and now I knew what he had meant. As I closed the part of my life named Isle Royale and its many chapters, I knew it had changed me. If I were to give that change one word, it would be “mindfulness.”
On the horizon, the mainland came into view, just a sliver at first, but growing by the minute, and with it, the future. I wondered if I would ever return. If not, Minong, now known as Isle Royale, would always be with me. Adapted from “Protecting National Parks” – Chapter 39 – Farewell
Day 1 - August 25, 2023
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning” ~ Old Adage
If you read “Return to Minong” (previous blog posting), you have a feel for the preparation for
my return to this special place, now known as Isle Royale National Park. A quick review for
first-time readers, Isle Royale is approximately a 45-mile-long by 9-mile-wide island located in the northwest portion of Lake Superior. Within it are some 42 inland lakes and the main island is surrounded by many smaller islands. The park is closer to Canada and Minnesota than Michigan. During the first decade of this century, I served there as a NPS Protection Ranger. Some 15 years have passed since then. Accompanying me would be three first-timers to this special place. Finally, the morning of departure from Copper Harbor had arrived and I was excited. The dawn was beautiful but, being absent from boat operation on Lake Superior for ten years, I had forgotten the “Old Adage.”
Darlene (Dar) and I met our adventure friends, Gary (Gar) and Marlene (Mar) at the dock to board the Queen IV for the average three-hour trip to Rock Harbor on Isle Royale. It was shortly after 8:00 AM when we, so to speak, set sail. And while GM would become queasy during the
crossing, by Lake Superior standards the seas were relevantly calm, mostly 1 to 2 footers. We were fortunate to make it to Minong prior to the storm.
It was approaching noon when we docked at the pier in Rock Harbor. The disembarking passengers from the Queen IV were herded into two groups: lodge guests and backpackers. I/Ranger Kathryn Keller greeted us backpackers and made an excellent orientation, touching on the importance of hydration, self-reliance, and self-rescue while sharing “Leave No Trace” ethics. She pointed out that our smartphones (which make us dumb), would be of little use other than cameras. She even mentioned that it was “National Park Service Founders Day.” Later, my colleagues would find her claim that Isle Royale was 99% wilderness and, with about 18,000 annual visitors, the least visited national park, misleading. As the Ranger closed her presentation, she looked skyward and said she had been at Isle Royale a couple of seasons and she never felt the weather quite like this. Our team then broke into pre-planned duties: Clif to get a permit, Gary to secure backpacks/poles, and Marlene and Darlene to arrange a water taxi to Chippewa Harbor. As we scurried about, the skies turned dark.
With my duties complete, I assisted Gary, who stood on the exposed pier with four backpacks at his feet. As sprinkles began, we hurriedly moved them to cover beneath the Visitor Center’s overhang. Once complete, I donned my backpack, covering it and myself with a poncho. Briskly
I walked to the lodge to check on the ladies and the taxi. The sprinkles turned to a downpour splayed by gusts of wind. I just made the overhang of the lodge when hail rained down on us. I had never witnessed hail in my six seasons as a ranger at Isle Royale. And during this storm, I again sensed the aura of energy in this special place. A gathering of like-minded folks took cover and smiled.
As the masses squeezed beneath the porch, Kim Alexander, the lodge's general manager, opened the door and summoned us in for cover. It had been years since I had seen Kim but there was no time for more than a handshake. To my knowledge, Kim Alexander and Rolf/Candy Petersen are the most permanent seasonal residents of the island.
As quickly as the storm had come, it dissipated. Nevertheless, our planned water taxi to Chippewa Harbor was changed to Moskey Basin as it is within the protection of barrier islands that make Rock Harbor, 14 miles in length. This decision would hopefully thwart any plans the Windigo might have had for us. After 15 minutes of no thunder, we boarded the water taxi, donned our PFDs, and Boat Operator Shawn transported us to the Moskey Basin pier.
As we disembarked onto the pier, my mind flashed back to docking there as a ranger in a patrol
boat and a hiker running up to us and excitedly telling us a forest fire was ablaze between there and Lake Ritchie. Ranger Peter Maggio and I double-timed it up the trail to confirm her claim and then called in resources to combat the wildfire. Part of the duties of a Protection Ranger is wildland firefighting. Many long arduous days of laborious work lay ahead.
To our dismay, we discovered that all the shelters at the Moskey Basin Campground were occupied. Gar, Mar, and Dar scratched their heads, how can this be in the least visited National Park?
As we consider one of the two tent sites, another memory intrudes. One time, long ago, I patrolled this campground, making sure everything was as it should be. It was my practice to make contact at all occupied campsites but when my glance revealed a woman resting in a tent absent a rainfly, I decided not to disturb her.
The folks I contacted in the next camp told me the person in the tent was very ill. I went back to the tent to wake a very sick woman who was relieved to see me. I learned she was backpacking alone. I would treat and transport her to Rock Harbor. Part of the duties of a Protection Ranger is providing emergency medical services. An artist she was, I later received in the mail a painting of a Moskey Bay shelter which is framed and hangs in my dining room.
We settled for one of two vacant tent sites. Good thing we brought tents. It wasn’t long before
all sites were taken. We came to realize that most of those 18000 annual visitors come in July and August. Both couples slept well, serenaded by the wail of the loon and the pitter-patter of rain on their small backpacking tents.
Day 2 - August 29, 2023
Sometime during the night the rain came to an end. With the group now understanding that shelters were in high demand and low supply, we had agreed to get on the trail to Daisy Farm first thing. We wasted no time in enjoying coffee and a tasty freeze-dried breakfast before
packing our backpacks with our tents, sleeping bags, and all the sundries.
At the onset, my backpack would have weighed in at about 40 lbs and Darlene’s at about 27 lbs. A rule of thumb is they shouldn’t weigh more than 25% of your body weight. Doing the math, we were close to the standard. Today would be the first real test of my compromised lower back.
We were on the 4.2 mile trail for Daisy Farm by 9:30 AM in hopes we would score a shelter.
GarMarDar would now get a taste of how Isle Royale trails are tougher than the math says they
should be. The mileage and elevation gain can be deceiving. The roots, rocks, and the frequent few steps up and few down take their toll.
As we trod along, my mind flashes back to my 2005 birthday run when I had been dropped off at Moskey Basin to run back to Daisy Farm. I remember thinking how old I felt at age 50. As I backpack at age 67, I wish I was that young again. I snicker to myself as I recall, “At this moment, I’ve never been this old before and will never be this young again.” I am pleased my back is holding up.
We arrive at Daisy Farm and score shelter 1. Located at the far west end of the campground, near the ranger cabin and Lake Superior, I consider it the best one. We offload our gear and eat lunch.
As I rest, I remember when I was a ranger being sent to this shelter to provide an emergency
medical service to a woman with a broken arm. She had been backpacking with her family
somewhere up on either the Greenstone or Minong Trail when she had fallen and fractured it. It
would take the family two days to get to Daisy Farm where a boater with a marine radio was able to contact the rangers for assistance. Splinting and slinging the arm, I then boated the family to Rock Harbor where they could catch a ferry off the island where she could get definitive medical care. A few weeks later I received a thank you letter from the husband along with these two pictures. (The first picture is in front of shelter 1, the same one we are staying in.) I share with you the final paragraph of his letter:
Isle Royale was one of the most amazing experiences we have ever had. In the face of adversity we saw beautiful scenes of nature, wildlife and landscape that took away focusing on the pain and the worry. I saw an inner strength in my family that absolutely made my Father’s Day and we met friends that answered our prayers of help.
After lunch and a siesta, our team decides to hike to the Ojibway Tower. Once, one of three fire
towers on the island, it now serves the radio communications system at Isle Royale. This hike
will be 1.7 miles one way. The climb comes in three waves to an elevation of about 1050 feet. I
take the rear in this climb.
First let me say, that I am not a hiking pole person, but that is a discussion for another time. But, on this trip, I did borrow my dad’s hiking pole for balance and support on slippery rocks and plank bridges I knew we would encounter.
Not long into the climb, as we scurried across mossy rocks, I slipped. As you can see my
hiking pole did not save me, it failed me. My initial impression was I had fractured my left
arm, just like the lady in the earlier picture. As I cursed, I spun around, looking for a glimpse of
the Windigo, but it was nowhere to be seen. As the pain subsided, I decided my arm wasn’t
fractured and continued on with a broken pole. I wonder what the outcome would have been
had I been wearing my backpack. I later posed for this picture.
Not long after my brush with the Windigo, Darlene had to reckon with a challenge. While struggling with vertigo, she now has to cross a somewhat wobbly plank bridge. We clear the bridge so as not to contribute to its flex and slowly, but surely, she makes the crossing without mishap. On to the Objiway Tower, which straddles the Greenstone Trail. The 360 view is
stunning and any picture I might share would not do it justice.
We return to our Daisy Farm shelter where Darlene and I swim in Lake Superior, where the water temperature is probably in the sixties. A dinner of Freeze-dried ChilliMac follows. We then attended a Wolf Moose program by Rolf and Candy Peterson, who canoed across the channel from their cabin to make the presentation to the Daisy Farm campers. I remember first meeting the world-renowned wildlife biologist in May 2003, which I wrote about in Chapter 13 – Transition of “Protecting National Parks.” It was good to see them again, They seem timeless.
It had been a full day and after the program, we crawled into our sleeping bags. Unknown to me, during the swim and program, Dar had chilled. She was undoubtedly confident her 30-degree down mummy bag would warm her. That night the temperature would drop into the 30s and she would suffer a long cold night. Most likely because of her inability to make use of the mummy effect of her sleeping bag because of claustrophobia. Yes, they can be a bit like a straitjacket. In the picture below you see our sleeping arrangements. Darlene’s bag is the blue one. Note to self, do not have a mummy bag if you are unable to take advantage of its warming abilities.
Day 3 - August 30, 2023
Our plans to make an early departure for Rock Harbor are waylaid because of the cold. Rock Harbor is, if you will, the city of Isle Royale as it is the port of all three ferries and the float plane, making the likelihood of a shelter slim. The distance from Daisy Farm to Rock Harbor is a
little over seven miles. Our slow start is amplified because of Darlene’s vertigo making for a slow pace. Gar volunteers to go ahead in hopes of getting a shelter. Following behind, the three slow pokes take time to visit Suzy’s cave.
We arrive at Rock Harbor to find that Gar has swept out shelter #8 for us to occupy. We shed our backpacks and explore the surroundings. No longer beasts of burden, we feel like we are walking on air. Unfortunately, that sensation passes too quickly.
As we look around, I have my eyes peeled for a protection ranger since I had been one at this
park for six years. At the pier, I spy the “Goshawk,” a patrol boat I had once piloted. Except for
the badge, the uniform of the NPS protection ranger is the same as all NPS employees. The most notable difference is the twenty-pound defensive gear belt they carry: pistol, handcuffs, baton, pepper spray, taser, and magazines. Protection rangers, besides providing EMS, fire suppression, search & rescue, are also the police in the park.
Shortly before I became a ranger in 2003, an IACP (International Association of Chiefs of
Police) study found NPS rangers were the most frequently assaulted federal law enforcement
officers. As an instructor said in my ranger academy, “All the four core ranger skills are
dangerous but there is only one where they maliciously try to kill you – law enforcement.”
Before long I spy one who I introduce myself to. P/Ranger Dylan Horne impresses me with his command appearance and mannerisms. I am flattered that he recognizes my name and says he
has read Protecting National Parks, which is stowed in his quarters. He introduced me to his supervisor, District P/Ranger Eric Amundson, whom I am equally impressed with. We take a seat on the Goshawk and they brief me on ISRO’s state of affairs. When we part ways, I’m confident they are doing the best they can with the assets available to fulfill their mission of Protecting the resource (park) from the visitor, the visitor from the resource, and the visitor from the visitor.
Day 4 - August 31, 2023
In that our ferry does not leave until 2:00 PM, we will make the most of the day. Darlene and I are up early so we can witness the fabulous Isle Royale sunrises I remember so fondly. It does not disappoint.
We then meet up with GarMar and do the 4-mile Stoll hike. It too is special. Along the way, a 23-year-old woman named Christina joins us. We learn she has been solo backpacking for several days and has been graced with moose and wolf sightings. I’m impressed with her skills and courage to take on such an adventure alone. She says there are two types of fun. Backpacking is an example of Type 2 fun, which is not always pleasurable at the time, but leaves you with lessons and memories for a lifetime. Christina took this picture of us four near Stoll Point. Our trek is nearing its end.
Stoll Point is so named in honor of Albert Stoll, Jr, who was an advocate, and perhaps the
catalyst, for the creation of Isle Royale National Park. A quote of his is, “Isle Royale is a part of
an entirely different world than the one in which we labor daily. It knows nothing and cares less of the triumphs of modern civilization.”
Our ferry ride back to the mainland is smooth sailing. From there, these two couples bid each
other farewell until Adventure 7.
Before this trip, a friend and frequent visitor to Isle Royale told me he had visited last year and
felt the park was deteriorating from lack of protection. I am pleased to report that was not my
finding. With an eye for violations or evidence of the same, I am happy to say I witnessed none. A conundrum each park must decide for itself is whether to limit visitation or not in the name of not loving the park to death. Some do, some do not. Isle Royale is one that does not which leads to the unpleasant realization of my friends – how can there be so many people in such a remote place? For me, I am proud to have once been part of the team that protects these special places for posterity.
” There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged
to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” ~ Nelson Mandela
Until next time, this is Clif Edwards signing off.