Backpacking Isle Royale

This summer I spent five days on Isle Royale, a large island in Michigan’s northernmost Great Lake: Superior. My interest in Isle Royale had grown over the years, hearing other hikers’ stories and seeing pictures of moose and gorgeous rock formations. This year I felt like I was ready to hike someplace that remote. In planning the trip, I relied on the Isle Royale Facebook page, the National Parks webpage, Jim DuFresne’s excellent book about Isle Royale National Park, and many YouTube videos, although my favorites were Ashley and Matt Fleming’s “Husband and Wife Outdoor Life” series. I chose the Windigo side of the island, as opposed to Rock Harbor, because I had heard that it was less traveled, and there were more moose. After visiting once, I know I’ll need to plan a few more trips to explore the rest of the island. 

Isle Royale Journal, Day 1:

After spending the night in Marquette, we headed toward the Keweenaw, stopping at Canyon Falls to do some exploring. Given that it looked like just a little roadside park, we were amazed by the views, and a little sad to cut our hike short in order to make it to Hancock with time to catch our flight. The trip to Windigo Harbor on the seaplane was well worth the extra expense (compared to the ferry); quick, scenic, and no sea sickness. After checking in with the rangers, we hiked a short distance to the Washington Creek campground and found a campsite that would accommodate three hammocks, which was no easy feat. We celebrated with a beer or two from the Windigo camp store, where we discovered that thunderstorms were forecast, and high-tailed it back to the campground to move into a shelter just as the rain began. From the dryness of the shelter we cooked dinner, and while we were waiting for our meals to rehydrate, a huge splashing sound came from Washington Creek–our first moose sighting!

Washington Creek shelters offered moose-viewing all day long.

Isle Royale Journal, Day 2:

After watching moose feed in Washington Creek while we had breakfast, we packed up to head toward Feldtmann Lake, not quite nine miles away. We took our first break from a scenic outcropping of rock, and tried to dry out. The ferns and thimbleberry shrubs were wet from the previous night’s rain, and had quickly drenched our shoes. While the Feldtmann Lake trail wasn’t particularly difficult, the thimbleberries were so tall and dense that it was hard to see rocks and roots on the trail. When we arrived at the campground, we found a hammock-friendly site right on the lake. After setting up camp, we hiked an additional mile to Rainbow Cove to swim in Lake Superior. (I was worried about leeches in Feldtmann Lake.) It was FREEZING, but it felt good to be clean! After dinner, Joe hiked back to Rainbow Cove to watch the sunset, and Tammy and I stayed in camp. We watched moose graze and swim in the distance, and beavers made their way back and forth in front of the campsite. After hearing some loud noises just down the beach, we discovered a cow about 20 yards from our campsite’s beach. She wandered closer, then took off into the lake and swam away. 

While it was awesome to see so many moose, during the night, from my hammock, it was a little unnerving to hear moose snorting and splashing so close by. 

A little too close for comfort.
But then she swam away.

Isle Royale Journal, Day 3: 

In the morning, after breakfast and packing up at our Feldtmann Lake campsite, I turned to see a bull moose just on the perimeter of our campsite, munching on leaves. Definitely too close! We left camp, hoping we didn’t bump into any of the cows Joe had seen earlier in the campsite up the trail we needed to travel. 

We headed along the Feldtmann Ridge trail to Siskiwit Bay, stopping at an overlook after about an hour or so into the hike, marveling at how far it looked like we had traveled! The corner of the lake where last night’s campsite had been was now the far edge of the lake, and at the near edge of the lake, we could see a moose swimming. We climbed up as far as we could on the Feldtmann fire tower to eat lunch, and arrived at Siskiwit Bay in the afternoon. 

The campsites and shelters there were quite a way up from the bay, so no lake view, but we enjoyed snacks out on the cement pier, and tried to summon the courage to swim in Lake Superior again, but a little splashing and foot soaking was all that any of us could manage. A ranger arrived by boat and checked out our campsite. Hammocking is tricky on Isle Royale because the campsites usually don’t have trees ideally situated, but you’re not supposed to hammock outside of the impacted campsite area. I was glad that our hangs on the perimeter of the campsite met with the ranger’s approval. 

The sky was gray, it was cool, and rain was in the forecast. We ate dinner in camp and went to bed early when it started to rain. We were well protected from the rain by dense forest, as well as our tarps over our hammocks, and even though there was thunder in the distance and lightning from time to time, I had a great night’s sleep. (I did have to pull my beanie down over my eyes to block out the light from the storm, though.)

Pesky beaver

Isle Royale Journal, Day 4:

Yesterday, the ranger who landed at Siskiwit Bay had told us the beaver activity had affected some of the trails, and gave us instructions to follow the beach, but be sure to use the bridge over the creek rather than attempting a stream crossing as we made our way along the Island Mine trail. We followed his beach walk instructions way too early, ended up pawing through swamp to make it to the bridge, and I had my first experience crawling on hands and knees to get out of a mud hole, worried I’d lose a trail runner in the muck. This was one of many times that I was grateful to be with two hiking buddies who could laugh about the situation, and “embrace the suck,” as they say. We realized later that the ranger’s instructions pertained to a section of trail further ahead, that anyone with common sense would have figured out just using their eyes, as the trail ended at a newly created beaver pond, but an alternate route along the lake was clearly visible to reconnect. 

After our adventures in the swamp, the rest of the day seemed pretty easy, even though there were big ups and downs, and it was very damp–one of those days where you were drenched from sweat, mist, dew, and puddles. We had contemplated spending the night at Island Mine, but arrived so early in the day that it made more sense to continue along to Windigo, spend another night at Washington Creek, and use the following day to day hike the Hugginin Cove loop, so that’s what we did. It rained like crazy between Island Mine and Windigo, but it was warm, and since we were already wet, it didn’t really change anything. In fact, it probably helped wash off some of the mud, at least from my top half. My pants were so wet that they stretched a couple of inches longer, and were dragging through the mud with every step, though. As we neared Windigo, we began to run into groups of scouts and other hikers. Even though we were pretty much all smiles, I’m not sure that our appearance encouraged them to believe they were in for a fun hike.

We arrived at Windigo, set up our hammocks at the Washington Creek campground, and went to the camp store to celebrate. In addition to the cold beer, stories from the day’s hike from others we met on the store’s deck made for an entertaining evening, which included more moose watching along the creek. 

Isle Royale Journal, Day 5: Slackpacking!

Today we left our gear set up in the Washington Creek campground, and carried considerably lighter packs (just water, snacks, water filter, and a first aid/survival kit) on the Hugginin Cove loop. It felt amazing to be hiking minus 20-some pounds! And, no rain! Just past the bridge and gauging station, we startled a cow moose that was near the trail. The trail felt close to civilization, as we could hear the back-up noise of excavators and cement trucks that were working on the foundation for the new camp store in Windigo, but after a few miles, it was finally drowned out. 

We had hoped to be able to swim at Hugginin Cove, but when we arrived we discovered that it was pretty rocky–completely gorgeous, but no beaches or easy entries into the water. We followed the trail as it meandered through lake-front cliffs, wondering at the dark chasms in the rocks and infinite burrows made by the tree roots. Moss and lichen of various sorts gave everything a soft, cushy feel. It was a place you didn’t want to move too quickly through, for fear of missing a gorgeous micro-view. The views of Lake Superior were stunning, too, but sometimes it’s the little things, the little antennae sprouting from the moss, or the tiny flower blossoms that really get me. 

We added to the trip by heading up the Minong trail to a scenic overlook, adding another three miles to the nine or so included in the Hugginin Cove loop. The last bit of trail to the outlook was breathtaking; cliffs, giant pines hanging on by intricate ropes of roots, and various shades in the rock and the lichen. Up top, we found a cairn marking the path, and a moose antler. Several trees had obviously been struck by lightning, and there was a small group of cedar waxwings holding court in one of the charred remains. I didn’t take any pictures from this site because they would not have done it justice.

After a few drops of rain, we headed back to Windigo, more than a little sad that this was our last night in this magical place!

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion! Instagram: @jenren_hikes

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