As you travel up north from southern Michigan, things change. Somewhere around Standish or West Branch. Everything falls away except trees and small breaks into open landscapes. You know you are up north. But when you cross the Mackinac Bridge and enter the Upper Peninsula – the U P – that’s where true north begins. This is remote, hardscrabble country, filled with hardy souls that relish the cold and scoff at many of the hardships that come from this type of living. It takes a certain daring to live in this part of the country. Or maybe just the desire to be left alone.
Nestled into this landscape is Marquette, Michigan, a postcard pretty town on the shores of Lake Superior and home of Northern Michigan University. If you plucked it up and plopped it down in southern California, people would flock to Marquette. But it’s on the north reaches of the U P and you have to enjoy winter if you’re going to live or be a student here. If you don’t ski – or snowshoe, or ride a snowmobile, or dogsled – I think your sanity would be questioned. Skiing is a religion and that’s why my brother from another mother – Cambo – chose to attend NMU. Cambo worships at the foot of the mountain.
After a chilly night and visits to numerous waterfront parks to introduce myself to Lake Superior, I met Cambo and we drove out to Presque Isle. About a ten minute drive from campus, Presque Isle is home to Black Rock, an outcropping of rocks that jut into Lake Superior. Perfect for jumping about twenty feet into ice cold water. Who wouldn’t want to do that on a beautiful fall day? Certainly Cambo and I would. So we parked, walked the mile or so to the rocks and climbed to the edge. We hemmed and hawed for a moment and then one after the other – Cambo first – jumped into the frigid water. My initial reaction was ‘Dear God, my lungs have frozen.’ My second thought was ‘Dear God, my lungs have frozen.’ But we survived. After our walk back to the car, which was filled with warm conversation and plenty of laughs, I said goodbye to Cambo. I thanked him for skipping class to join me at Black Rock and hoped he wouldn’t tell his parents. Then I proceeded to post it on Twitter. Sorry Cambo.
The drive from Marquette to Grand Portage, Minnesota and the ferry that would take me to Isle Royale National Park, is about eight hours. Eight hours of breathtaking landscapes, closed mom and pop hotels, Betty’s Pies, Bingo Hotel, dazzling trees and water. Always water.
The morning of the Isle Royale ferry, a pink-hued sky broke over the Grand Portage Casino / Marina / Lodge / RV Park where I had spent the night. When traveling to Isle Royale this time of year, you take it with you or you’re out of luck. I had to scramble to assemble my pack before the 7:15 AM departure, so naturally I took too much, giving me a pack that weighed about 35-40 pounds, with much of that being water. So be it. I climbed aboard the Voyager II with six other men that were catching the last ferry of the season. One last shot at the wilderness before the season ends. One more chance to feel removed from everything and everyone.
On the bumpy ride over, I met Mitch Mitchell. Twenty two, from Atlanta and high-pointing all of the national parks in the lower 48. Isle Royale was his 38th since the beginning of June. I asked Mitch what was driving him. “There are only a few times in life when you have this opportunity. School can wait. Career and money can wait. I thought I should experience a bit of life first.” I told him how much I admire his attitude and asked why the majority of twenty-somethings didn’t seem to share his sense of adventure. His answer was short, but direct. “Way to busy chasing the dollar. Afraid of falling behind.” Except for the fact that he smelled like a goat, I liked everything about Mitch.
We were met at the Windigo dock by Park Ranger Kaitlyn Knick, who gave us a few tips. Most notably, she informed us that it was rutting season for the roughly 1,600 moose on the island. Her exact words were, “Moose can be very aggressive during this season. If you see a moose, your best course of action is to hide. If you hear a moose nearby, hide. Do not confront a moose.” And with those words ringing in my ears I set off for my 4.1 mile hike to Hugginnin Cove. About 100 yards from the dock I saw my first moose track.
I would like to make a general disclaimer at the outset of what will be a rather lengthy set of blogs over the next 12-15 moths. I am not young. Please bear this in mind when I am describing certain events – such as hiking 4.1 miles over soggy, rugged terrain. If I were to tell you that this was an easy task, I would be lying. At least the initial mile. It takes me about a mile to catch stride, then the weight and uphill, downhill struggles lessen. But that first mile – whew – that was tough.
Other than your own footsteps, the first thing you notice on a wilderness trail, is the absolute absence of any sound except the wind. The wind across the forest floor, lifting leaves and scooting them along. The wind high in the trees, gentle in perfect pitch. It is your constant, unbroken companion. Several times along the trail I would sit and listen to the wind. Such a foreign sound to someone accustomed to the noise of daily life.
Over ninety-eight percent of Isle Royale is designated as wilderness. A mile into the hike I realize I could be a thousand miles from anyone and the effects would be the same. Surrounded by northern white cedar, red rooted black spruce, tamarack, red maple, and black ash, you are alone. As the trail begins to spiral upward, leading through moose tracked marshes, before descending back to the rocky shoreline, I was aware of being alone in a great forest – on an island – in the middle of a great lake.
My campsite was right out of a travel brochure. On the edge of Lake Superior, the sound of waves hitting the rocks below, mingled with a rushing brook finding its way down from the hills. I set up camp, got out of my boots and promptly fell asleep. It was dusk when I awoke and decided to walk a few trails, take a few photos. The sky was bluing with steely dancing clouds and the waves were louder than earlier in the day. In time a full moon slid from behind the eastern cliffs and the night was never fully dark. Or silent.
After a pretty good sleep, considering the full moon was like a headlamp gazing cyclops-like into my tent all night, the first thought I had the next morning was uh-oh, my muscles are stiff as a broom. And they were. A few laps around the campsite loosened things up a bit. I threw on my pack and headed back to the boat, completing the second half of the 9.5 mile Hugginnin Trail loop in about two and a half hours. Along the way I heard the longing moans of a moose – where are you my love – but none crossed my path. Only the wind and the ever present rustling of leaves.
Shed of my pack I headed up to the Windigo camp store to see if they had the retro poster for Isle Royale. Being the last day of the season, the store was essentially empty, except for NP Ranger Valerie Martin, so we struck up a conversation. She wanted to know what I was doing on Isle Royale and I explained TheMountCo Project. Valerie immediately perked up and began telling me about northern Minnesota school programs that bring kids to the island, untethered from electronics and how that was having a positive effect on the kids. “I tell them they own the island. This is their land, their responsibility. And they respond well to the challenge of preserving the land when they understand that it belongs to them.” She also added, “And I’ve never had one student tell me they missed having their phone while they were here. Not one.” I think northern Minnesota schools and Valarie are on to something.
As the Voyager II pulled up to the dock and we handed up our gear, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay a few more days. Explore more of this vast island, home to sixteen hundred moose and two lone wolves. Sit by mighty Lake Superior and listen to her roar as she slaps the ageless rocks. But October 5 is the last boat off the island and as much as I wanted to stay, I didn’t want to miss that boat. So as we pulled away from the dock, Valerie and Kaitlyn waved goodbye to the last visitors of the season. Gliding past Beaver Island and into the rough waters of Superior, I knew I would be back. But for today, I was heading to the tip of Minnesota on the Canadian border. Voyagers National Park.