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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!