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IRNP, Day 9 Lane Cove to Rock Harbor, 7.7 miles

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, One clover, and a bee, And revery. The revery alone will do, If bees are few.

Emily Dickinson
Fortunately for me, it was windy and all the bees were hunkering down.

The rain stopped and segued into wind, gusting heavy in the trees and churning my protected cove. In the distance I see “charging white horses” waves and I’m glad I get to walk out rather than kayak. I guess that explains my neighbor’s palatial set up since one never knows when you’ll be wind bound.

Except for a small portion near Windigo right at the start, this is the only part of the entire “thru-hike” that I unwind and repeat. But things always look different from another perspective and it feels faster walking out, up and down through forest of paper birch, a pileated woodpecker up early as well as a moose, crashing through the brush to make a hasty exit.

I return to the series of boardwalks, but the wind seems to have kept them in their hive, one well hidden below the boards. A black fox runs ahead of me on the steep switchbacks. It’s always easier to head up, even if my breathing quickens. I just hurl myself forward, the chances of slipping practically nil.

At the top I have a choice to backtrack to Mount Franklin or head down towards Rock Harbor. It’s only a third of a mile, and seems ridiculous to miss looking out one last time towards Canada and the cliffs of basalt towering above Gitchee Gumee.

wind picking up
Looking down toward lane Cove, the Sleeping Giant beyond.

And I’m not disappointed. Millions of trees stretch out below, the water a bright blue and the cliffs beyond massive. The wind is really pushing me on this boulder and I realize at that moment, my tiny, single engine plane is going to have a rough time landing.

The descent is easy through forest, though I catch glimpses of the myriad islands and long peninsulas, Isle Royale like a huge creature that decided to lay down in Superior, her backbone and arms exposed.

I come to the “lake” described by the couple I met yesterday who were chased by a moose. It’s more of a pond and no moose are milling about at the moment. When I meet Tobin Harbor, I remember what the ranger warned me about eight days ago, that the Rock Harbor trail was one of the hardest on the island and had 150 downed trees.

Nobody wants to deal with downed trees, so I turn right and walk parallel to that “worst trail in the park” on an incredibly easy trail of soft pone needles, mushrooms and fungus keeping me company.

mushroom stack

At an intersection, I notice a sign for Susie’s Cave. I’ve had quite enough of this easy trail and just gotta take a look at that cave. It’s up a little, through a bit of forest and there it is. yep, a cave alright. A nice big, ordinary cave.

What’s extraordinary, is the view. I’m right on the water, looking out to small rocky islands covered in spruce and bright orange lichen. Loons bob in the water. Oyster mushrooms in stacks cling to a tree.

Did I mis-hear because this is not a hard trail by any measure. I guess I climb over a few downed trees, but the going is good as I pass a cute couple in identical brand new boots, sharing their first night out.

I soon come to more shelters and a young hiker tells me the plane’s are delayed. Just as I thought. But it gives me time to explore a little. The ranger station is situated in tiny Stag Harbor in a beautiful little crescent. No wind churns waves here, but of course the planes land in Tobin Harbor and it is apparently still a tube of turbulence.

cute couple on their first overnight
waiting for the plane

It’s here, though, where the plan to create a national park out of the island was hatched. Along the semicircle used to be one quaint cottage after another luring repeat visitors for the summer, mostly to escape hay fever on the mainland. They were brought here by a steamer called “The American.” So many people created memories of boating, swimming, picking berried and presumably singing around the campfire, they were instrumental in saving this idyllic place as a wilderness.

It is a strange year. About twelve of us wait for our planes to return us to Michigan or Minnesota and one boat docks in the tiny marina, but the place is deserted. The hotel is closed and the restaurant promising beer, burgers and bliss also shuttered. I have one more scoop of bullion and find a shaded spot to cook up a little lunch.

Just then, the ranger tells a small group their plane is one the way. Coming from Hancock, they fly a Cessna which can take a few more chances on these waves. From Grand Marais, it’s a Beaver, and there’s no word of one heading my way.

The good news is one of the guys on his way out hands me two Clif bars he won’t be needing anymore. Score! Their plane unloads a group of backpackers, clean fresh with lots of new gear. I get the Leave No Trace lecture happening next to me and I offer a bit of beta on campsites since not only did I snag the best, but I also checked out the rest.

from the plane

As they leave, the ranger comes towards me and says head on back to Tobin Harbor, your plane is on the way. It’s Thomas again carrying two passengers from Windigo who are grateful he picked me up as they got a full view of the island – and they get again as we fly back west towards the mainland.

The plane pitches and bucks in the air as we lift off and I just breath deeply trusting the pilot wants to get home as much as we do. It is beautiful, a long humpy mass of green rising from the vast blue.

What happened on this mini thru-hike? I took pretty easy days and was in camp by mid-day, each night finding the absolute best site and soaking in every detail. I had clear days warm enough to swim and thunderstorms that had me scurrying into a blessed shelter. I saw moose close up, wolf tracks, beaver’s work and two fat otters. Loons, a barred owl, pileated woodpeckers, sandhill cranes, and a hawk talked to me in their language, inviting me to share in this grand wilderness they call home. I broke bread with trail angels and learned how to listen to my body and my intuition.

But maybe most important, after nearly nine months off from backpacking, I was reminded why I love this activity more than any other. I feel most alive when dirty, carrying all I need in my pack and managing the elements. And that’s quite possibly because it’s only during an overnight hike that I come the closest to living fully in the moment, to letting things happen and discovering the beauty and wonder in all things.

And that includes rain and leeches!

the drive home
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IRNP, Day 8 Moskey Basin to Lane Cove, 10.8 miles

In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.

Alice Walker
The view from the fire tower on Mount Ojibwe looking back to what I’d hiked.

Waking up in my private little shelter to the waves gently lapping and reminding me of yesterday’s leech nightmare. No plans to swim this morning. I catch a glimpse of pink in the sky, but since I’m facing south, can only see the extraordinary show when I pop out of the shelter.

Orange, magenta, lavender and pink in a swirl of color, so present and overwhelming, I feel bathed in its glow. I quickly head back to the otter dock and then out onto the big exposed bit of Canadian Shield. The smell of coffee wafts towards me as a screen door slams but no one joins me out here where the view is miraculous.

It’s just a sunrise, but I see them so rarely from our tree lined street. Are they always this good and I am simply not attuned to them? I suddenly remember that the wise old saying about red skies in the morning, sailors take warning. This glorious morning will be followed by rain.

Mr. Otter cleaned himself of leeches, perhaps, on the dock and was soon joined by his pal who also had grooming chores.
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IRNP, Day 7 McCargoe Cove to Moskey Basin, 9.8 miles

If leeches ate peaches instead of my blood, then I would be free to drink tea in the mud!

Emilie Autumn
Mr. Otter cleaned himself of leeches, perhaps, on the dock and was soon joined by his pal who also had grooming chores.
Mr. Otter cleaned himself of leeches, perhaps, on the dock and was soon joined by his pal who also had grooming chores.

I’m up early as the sky begins to lighten. I eat as I pack and wonder if maybe going forward in my backpacking ‘career,’ I forego a stove altogether. I really don’t need it and it adds bulk and weight. 

Stuffing the kitchen in Blueberry (my new Granite Gear pack) I realize I left my pot, filter and water bottle down on the rocks by the dock. The foxes are such thieves, I hope they’re still there. 

I’m awake before anyone and it’s dead quiet, even on the dive boat. I see a bit of bright blue tucked into the rocks, and the kit is right where I left it. And what a gift to come down here since I see the magical sunrise at the end of the long cove, perfect reflections of the boreal forest in still water turning orangey-yellow. 

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IRNP Day 5, South Lake Desor to Todd Harbor, 11.6 miles

Learn to recognize good luck when it’s waving at you, hoping to get your attention.

Sally Koslow
My beat up hiker's feet on a private rocky beach looking towards the Sleeping Giant.
My beat up hiker’s feet on a private rocky beach looking towards the Sleeping Giant.

The day starts with loons calling across the lake, mournful, then in that hysterical yodeling which sounds, frankly, loony. I don’t bother packing quickly since the sky is clear and I feel no pressure to move. 

But I’m out before the boys – one of which wanders into my camp accidentally after using the outhouse, apologetic and embarrassed – and the father and son, who I walked in on as they were changing clothes, but fortunately for all of us, strategically placed overgrown ferns hid any private bits. 

Sometimes you just have to jump right in.
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IRNP Day 6, Todd Harbor to McCargoe Cove, 6.2 miles

True, the sun and the wind inspire. But rain has an edge. Who, after all, dreams of dancing in dust? Or kissing in the bright sun?

Cynthia Barnett
Sometimes you just have to jump right in.
Sometimes you just have to jump right in.

Rolling thunder wakes me with flashes of light like so many strobes. I feel scared as the wind picks up and wonder if the enormous birch behind my head with branches only at the top will stay standing. I pop out to poop and pee before it rains. 

No rain hits until it’s light and it’s only a sprinkle, so I pack up and get started on the short walk to a bay with shelters. I liberate three spiders with bulbous bodies and stringy legs who spent the night huddled under my pack’s lid. A slender black fox with a bushy striped tail visits for handouts. 

The trail heads up through dense woods. My rain pants protect me from the wet overgrowth. I catch glimpses of small islands off this main island, all uninhabited except for their native creatures. 

I walk straight into a refreshing wind and think about the pipe passed around last night. I’m not against smoking, but like headphones on the trail, I don’t see a need to alter my mental state while hiking and prefer to be completely alert and in tune with my surroundings. 

Right now, my surroundings are threatening and expectant. I hear thunder to the north and south, growling like a warning. It’s so dark when I walk through forest, I can barely see where to put my feet to avoid the mud. 

The less traveled Island Mine Trail gave me flashbacks to the Te Araroa.
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IRNP, Day 4 Siskiwit Bay to South Lake Desor, 9.8 miles

A beaver does not, as legend would have it, know which direction the tree will fall when he cuts it, but counts on alacrity to make up for lack of engineering expertise.

Ann Zwinger
The less traveled Island Mine Trail gave me flashbacks to the Te Araroa.
The less traveled Island Mine Trail gave me flashbacks to the Te Araroa.

It’s drizzling and my clothes are damp from dew even protected inside the shelter. The good news is that in spite of the gloom, I can see the ridge I’ll walk ahead, double humps of tall trees. 

Jamie walks past and tells me there’s a 30% chance of thunderstorms. Christian packed the weather radio from his boat. They bring so much gear, no wonder they decide to take the day off and stay here. 

Not me! Thunderstorms aren’t going to stop forward progress as I almost immediately meet sloppy, black mud. I have the rain pants on again for the bushwhacking nightmare I’ve been warned about. Not many walk the Feldtmann Loop to begin with, and this year, the trail has seen fewer hikers and even less maintenance.

One of millions of dew covered spider webs on Feldtmann Ridge.
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IRNP, Day 3, Feldtmann Lake to Siskiwit Bay, 10.2 miles

Suddenly a mist of green on the trees, as quiet as thought.

Dorothy Richardson
One of millions of dew covered spider webs on Feldtmann Ridge.
One of millions of dew covered spider webs on Feldtmann Ridge.

It drizzled last night and my lake is shrouded in dense fog. I notice for the first time witch hair moss draped over branches of the big cedar where I hung Blueberry, hopefully high out of long black-socks-fox’s reach.  

No swimming this morning as I put on rain gear, mostly for the shrubbery car wash to come. The wind is high as I make tea and eat bars. Here’s hoping it gives me views from the Feldtmann fire tower. 

Almost immediately, I cross an oily wetland on boards, one broken and sunken, but the ranger told me it was safe if I move slowly. I tell myself it is forbidden to fall and shuffle across. 

The forest is dark and wet and I move well alone in the early morning. I know the ridge comes soon and it appears as stairs heading straight up to pines. The sun pushes through silvery and bright. Crickets with fancy wings leap out of my way as my feet walk on large stones in a kind of concrete emulsion. 

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IRNP Day 2, Hugginin Cove to Feldtmann Lake (Rainbow Cove 14.4 miles

A fox tries to make its home near good supplies of food.     

Elizabeth Russell-Arnot
A wee cairn at Rainbow Cove.
A wee cairn at Rainbow Cove.

All night, the sky lit up like a strobe light, thunder rumbling long and menacing, but not one drop of rain reaching me. I packed everything inside the tent including my muddy shoes, afraid a creature would make off with something vital. 

The sunset was so perfect last night from my private rock outcropping, but this morning is socked in with fog. I pack up quickly, noticing one fat slug curled under the alicoop’s tarp. 

Tea is made and I bite into the best bars yet. I tweaked the recipe, leaving out any wheat products and cutting the uber sweet dates in half. I have neighbors, but I only see one quietly emerge to grab water. I leave before their tents come down. 

It’s a boggy, thimbleberry zone with ups and downs over fallen birch, their bark pealing into tight scrolls. Mostly, I ‘walk the plank’ expertly arranged over wetlands, a thin trickle moving the coffee-stained water. They’re hardly just nailed together planks. Often, trail workers built short stairs to accommodate the undulating land. 

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IRNP Day 1, Windigo to Hugginin Cove, 5.1 miles

Getting the "Leave no Trace" lecture Covid-style.
Getting the “Leave no Trace” lecture Covid-style.

Delay is never denial.

Lailah Gifty Akita

We’re up at the crack of dawn since last night’s party got a bit out of control and now we need to clean and pack before leaving Karen’s beautiful home right at the edge of the water.

Karen is a follower and a friend I have yet to meet who so generously gave me the run of her empty house on rocks above Lake Superior. She’s one bad ass gal, climbing Colorado 14ers into her 70’s. Karen is my heroine.

This vacation of hiking, kayaking, cooking and lazying around was desperately needed. But now it’s time to say goodbye as we busily vacuum, wash dishes and organize a week’s worth of garbage and recycling. Richard is grumpy without coffee. Sorry, smackles, it’s already packed.

The airport isn’t far, just up the hill where we pass our favorite field laid out like a table cloth, billowing out to the massive lake below. Round hay bales sit at odd angles like watchmen of the seemingly endless horizon. 

This time though, after a week of glorious weather, we pass it under soupy skies, our height revealing just how dense the fog is sitting low on still water. 

And just as you’d expect, the news isn’t good at the tiny Cook County Airport where one masked gentleman informs me the planes were grounded for two days. Just as the words leave his mouth, Isle Royale Seaplanes phones me to confirm what we expected – weather delay, though she cheerily promises to call each hour with any “developments.”