Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Isle Royale Trip: Looking Back

Six days around Isle Royale is not nearly enough! Circumnavigation itself could be done much faster if you're after a record. Another group from Chicago did the same trip in 5 days earlier this year. On the ferry to the island we heard stories of paddlers doing it in all of 3 days. Next to that a week of time sounds like a really long haul. The island is around 100 miles around if you don't deviate from the straight line too much. Six days leaves you just short of 20 miles a day and that's a lot of time on the water with a loaded boat even in calm conditions. But calm conditions is not what Isle Royale is about and not something you should count on in this remote paddling paradise. If you're planning to do any hiking or explore any of the bays or land on any of the hundreds of islands that surround the King you definitely need more time. I wish we took two or three extra days. A short 8-mile side-trip down the McCargoe cove was one of the highlights of the whole trip. So were the hikes on Amygdaloid Lake and the one to Look-Out Louise. I wish we had time to go into Washington Harbor, visit the Rock of Ages and the Passage Island lighthouse. Six days—we could have easily spend those just in the NE section alone.

Make sure your travel partners are compatible! Ideal situation is where partners are of equal strength and experience as well as share similar goals for the trip. If that is not the case, expectations and compromises need to be explicitly settled in advance of the trip. It's no fun for the person who has to wait for the partner nor is it for the one who has to work at maximum RPMs to keep up. Both partners need to have experience with conditions they tackle on the trip. Temptation may take a less experienced partner after the more prepared one and unnecessary complications/safety challenges may arise. I am not suggesting that this cannot be done. It should, however, be explicitly settled ahead of the trip. Equipment needs to taken into account when establishing compatibility: Eighteen-foot racing kayak with no overhang will not be compatible with a 14-foot 26-inch-wide recreational kayak even if the paddlers driving them are. After this trip, I am wondering if Nordkapp H2O is compatible with Nordkapp HS? Is it possible that a little bit of rocker reduction with a little bit of extra buoyancy at the ends and somewhat reduced bow and stern overhang make for a meaningfully faster kayak? Another possibility is that working a jack-hammer before the trip makes for a stronger paddler compared to another one inhaling epoxy fumes with his head in the cockpit.

Practice packing your boat the before the trip! Had I taken all the clothes, gear and food I brought with me to Copper Harbor, there would have been a bag or two on the decks of the kayak or a bag would have been left at Rock Harbor Lodge. The Lodge, by the way, happily stores your overflow stuff for mere $3.5/day (as of 2009). That's a lot of money for a laundry bag!

You always need to take extra food on a multi-day trip away from the supermarket but do some careful estimation and don't take twice as much as you will need. Extra weight in the kayak is not as deleterious as it is in the backpack but extra pounds matter and add up over the miles and miles you'll be covering. Having to squeeze things into the hatches every morning also takes time, tries you patience, and can take away from the enjoyment of the trip.

Do not take foods along that you have not tested prior to the trip. Something too spicy too sweet, salty or containing new food additives that don't agree with your system can easily disrupt the plumbing system. On a demanding trip your body will be taxed with physical challenges outside of the daily rhythm and you don't need to add any additional stressors from the inside. Stick with the basics and do your culinary discovery adventure at home.

Bring paddling gloves to protect your hands on the trip! This is an absolute necessity for those who work desk-jobs and do not have serious calluses built up before the trip. By day three my soaked hands were very tender. NRS Mystery gloves provided a huge relief and made for much more pleasant paddling.

Open direct-line A-to-B crossings can present interesting challenges as well as save time on a trip. Conversely, they can be boring. Especially in a place like Isle Royale A-to-B is usually not the best course to travel. Shoreline is the reason to go there. In windy conditions you will probably also find that the island will hide you from the wind somewhat or even completely close to shore.

Clothing layers under the drysuit are highly customizable and how much or what you have next to your skin makes a difference. These days the fabrics available to the paddler are nothing short of amazing. Choose those that make you feel dry even when they are completely soaked with sweat! They exist! Anything with non-itchy Merino Wool or Lava Wool fabrics do it for me. Instead of one warm and bulky item get two or three thinner wicking insulation layers. Most layers designed for wicking will not get you warm in cold conditions and will feel wet under the dry suit. You need your layering to trap some air to do that. Fleece, polartec, and wools are the best I've tried.

Try your equipment before the trip. Especially paddles and rescue equipment. Emergency is no place to learn the nuances of how things work. "How different can Werner paddle be from Lendal?" you may ask. I switched from one to the other within days before the trip. As a result, I have experienced more than a few jolts of adrenaline when I braced with waves hitting the beam and, instead of the familiar solid support, I felt the paddle slip down into the depths. Both paddles are top-of-the-line high angle propulsion super-machines with bent carbon shafts. I use both set at 60 degree feather. I paddled with the Werner for at least 10 hours before the trip and yet, the muscle memory was calibrated for the Lendal. I also bought a new thermos for the trip. The tea in it was completely cold in about 4-5 hours of paddling!

Bring a tarp! The self-proclaimed grand-daddy of modern sea kayaking, Derek Hutchinson, portrays Americans as fat and lazy in his books. He clearly looks down on "American" style kayaks with their huge cockpits, ample cockpit volume and wide beams. Even with his supremacist attitude he sings praise to one American invention—the tarp! It is a great inexpensive gadget that will allow you to stay outside of your tent and socialize when the weather goes south. Cooking and eating in a downpour are quite civilized under the cover of this lightweight mobile shelter. It is indispensible for packing in the rain. Combination of hot rocks and cold water spells rain. Be prepared.

Two-liter hydration pack on the back of my PFD has substantial weight and worked very well for me on day trips. Paddling full days, though, 2 liters of water is not enough. Even if you can make it on 2 liters of water through the day, you should not. Without forcing myself to drink but taking a sip every time I would think about water, I found myself nearly emptying two 2-liter packs a day. Get a bigger bladder, have water filter accessible for refilling on the water or carry an additional water pack. Many water filters can be hooked up directly to the drinking tube if you remove the mouth piece. That way you can refill the bladder without needing to unscrew the lid or take it off your back.

Sleep is important for bodily regeneration on a physically demanding trip like this. I can't sleep as well on the ground as I can in my home bed. Most of us probably can't. While still exhausted after a long day, sleep is good; however, quickly the sides and the back start signaling excessive pressure and I need to turn from side to side. If you are like me, quality sleep under those conditions is just not going to happen. Here's a thought: maybe night sleep on trips should be limited to 5-6 hours. If possible, you need to try and get at least four consecutive hours of sleep to reach deep REM stage where the best regeneration happens. Short naps during the day could, then, be used to get additional rest as needed. I find naps in a hammock particularly enjoyable. On this trip, I have not even unpacked the hammock because we were either paddling, packing, cooking or hiking at all times.

Mark your maps with anything you want to reach or use as sea and landmarks. For Isle Royale I wish I had added the campsites, mines, villages, and any natural features I wanted to visit. Memory is just not reliable and doubt about your destination is not a pleasant feeling when you're using up the physical reserves at the end of the day. In retrospect, I feel conflicted about navigation on this trip. We probably relied too heavily on GPS. I am a fan of this technology and it worked pretty well meeting the demands most of the time. GPS will not soon replace the 'full' view you get on the full map. One annoying detail about the GPS was the tendency to not display various points of interest that were present on the map until the unit was zoomed in to 800ft. At that level of magnification, GPS is practically useless as the screen only shows about a ¼ of a mile across.

Have a helmet easily accessible when paddling next to shorelines like those on Isle Royale! Both the bottom of the lake and the shoreline are full of hard rock surface. The rock there is rarely smooth. If you are caught in an unexpected squall, even 1-2 foot waves can present challenges and lead to head trauma when landing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Isle Royale, Day 7: Duncan Bay Narrows – Blake Point – Lookout Louise – Rock Harbor – Tobin Harbor – Fort Wilson

Total Distance=13.9 miles; Time=5hrs.

We got up early and started the day with a quick breakfast of Granola cereal. No cooking. The couple from the neighboring shelter came by to say good-bye. We were on the water before 8AM.

Duncan Bay Narrows was peaceful as we paddled into the sunrise but the waves were picking up steady as we approached the open water. We could see the sun! As soon as we were out of the protection of the bay 2-4' reflecting waves were right where we left them yesterday. The cliffs of the Palisades followed us all the way to Blake Point. Russ, as usual, kept a brisk tempo as if auto-paced by a metronome all trip long. I had a particularly hard time starting the engines that morning. Every stroke came with an effort and sustaining the normal 3.5-4 knot pace was a major challenge. At times I felt like I probably can't make another turn of the torso. Thanks to Russ, I just had to keep on going.

The chop appeared to grow larger as we got closer to the Blake Point. Confused waters similar to what we saw at Locke Point met us at Blake but the shoals were not nearly as long. Soon I was paddling to the southwest with the wind and swell at my back and enjoying the extra help. Before I had a chance to soak in the relief I heard my name carried by the wind. A look behind me revealed Russ in the water outside of his boat. That just did not make any sense. Why would he capsize in perfectly placid swell after what we have been through? And if some freak of nature did tip him over, he would certainly not be calling me for help. Then things started clicking into place: a swim is a ritual for Russ on every trip I've taken with this sailor. Well, turns out that's exactly what it was—a ritual swim that he wanted to share with me. Russ was celebrating the rounding of Blake Point which, according to most accounts, is one of the most treacherous places around the Island. I wish I could have joined him but I was happy to stay upright moving forward. Wet exit, re-entry and pumping were not in the cards this morning. I don't even know if I had in me to do a self-rescue without throwing up.

We continued on past Merit Lane campground toward Look-Out Louise recommended by our neighbors from Duncan Bay Narrows. Paddling with the waves and the wind I felt better. Maybe constant up-and-down and left-to-right got to me? Or was it the beer? I never quite figured it out. It was not long, though, before we both started to get hot because we were paddling down-wind. This was the warmest day of our trip with the sun out in full.

Entering Tobin Harbor we saw a couple of abandoned houses left over from the private residents who lived on the island before it became the National Park. I guess the park service has decided to let nature take care of these remnants of civilization. In the conditions that prevail here and without constant maintenance, it was blatantly obvious that the structures will not last long. In fact, most of them were in various stages of ruin already. Some didn't even look like houses anymore—more like piles of boards.

At about 11AM we arrived at the dock where the trail leading to Look-Out Louise started. At this point we did not have much time left for the hike at all. No worries, we caught another lucky break. A couple of canoeists promptly showed up at the dock and informed us that Copper Harbor ferry did not run on Friday. Gale force winds and waves from the north kept the ship docked safely in home port for the first time in two seasons. All the passengers who did not get back to the mainland yesterday were going to board the Isle Royale Queen IV first. The ferry will, then, return for the rest of the campers later in the afternoon.

The 1-mile walk to the bluff on which the lookout is located was very scenic. First, we passed by the Hidden Lake where, according to the couple from last night, the moose frequently come to visit the salt licks. Unfortunately, no moose were in the cards for us. No worries, the overlook was absolutely gorgeous offering us 400-foot views of Duncan Bay and beyond, all the way to the Amygdaloid Island. Islands, bays, narrow passages, and more islands as far as the eye can see. Canada was clearly visible on the horizon.

After the hike, we had an easy paddle past the Scoville Point and back to Rock Harbor. We saw many on-lookers on Scoville rock and even a single kayaker in a short-sleeve cotton t-shirt casually dipping his paddle in calm waters on an early Saturday afternoon. At around 2PM we dragged the paternal twins Nordkapps onto the same rock beach that saw us launch almost exactly six days ago.

It was nice to have all this time to unpack, change, and eat at the lodge. Rushing to make the ferry would have probably taken away from the overall experience. We even had time to tour the campsites and shelters at Rock Harbor and then took a hike on the Tobin Harbor Trail almost all the way to Scoville point.

The ferry came and took us from Rock Harbor departing at around 8PM. We did not land in Copper Harbor until 11PM.
There was no driving that night so we headed for
Fort Wilkins Historic State Park and built our tents at a campground one last time.

Go to: Reflections

Friday, August 21, 2009

Isle Royale, Day 6: Birch Island – Amygdaloid Island –the Keyhole – Belle Isle – Locke Point – Duncan Bay Narrows

Total Distance=14.7 miles; Time=6hrs.

We woke up in time to get an early start and make up some lost time. Rock Harbor was just over 20 miles away from Birch Island, though, and we still had a day and a half so there was no real rush. We took our time eating, cleaning up, drying and packing. The rain was still going outside. It did not seem to have stopped all night either. The radio forecast was for strong northerly winds and building waves. From the protection of the cove we could not really gage the conditions in the open waters. We paddled out into smooth swells rolling into the McCargoe Cove.

As we left the protection of the Cove wind and waves greeted us like the eager relatives you are tied to for life but don't really want to see that close and personal. Familiar rebounding wave patterns were right there to meet us and the wind has shifted toward the north as forecast. There was no more protection from the Island. Luckily, we were only a short distance away from Amygdaloid channel. It was not a grand navigational challenge to choose the south over the north shores of this island to proceed.
The Amygdaloid provided plenty of shelter and the water behind this steep island was calm. On the SW corner of the island, in a small bay, there is a ranger station. I am not sure what facilities or services they offer. We paddled to the dock where two motor boats were moored and checked out multiple barracks amply decorated with moose antlers. There was no sign of life so we paddled on about half way down the south coast of the Amygdaloid—about to where the eastern end of the Amygdaloid Lake is. Russ has remembered reading about an arch on an unmarked trail to the Amygdaloid Lake so we decided to look for that hike. As we landed where the trail could and should have been, we found a short indistinct 2' marker for the unofficial trail. What gave it away more than anything was a large animal (moose?) skull someone left on top of it.

The hike to the arch and to the lake was the opposite of the hike we took at Todd Harbor. The island quickly gains about 50' of elevation and, once up on the top, one gets fantastic views of the Amygdaloid channel semi obscured by the conifers. The Island of Kings lays mightily to the South. The hike was also rewarded by the find of plentiful blueberries. Unfortunately, the berries were so small that gathering them became a bore kinda quick. Other than that, they were very tasty. It was still alternating between thick mist and light rain outside. Even when it stopped for short periods of time, the humidity must have been 100% so it made little difference as the moisture had nowhere to evaporate off the face and clothes. Once we got to the shores of the Amygdaloid Lake we found a hidden aluminum canoe just off the trail. The park service must come out here to fish or monitor some wildlife, I guess. I don't think they would mind terribly if someone took their vessel for a quick spin on the lake.

This was the best hike we took on the trip. Alas, we had to move on so without much delay we continued through the Keyhole to Robinson Bay and toward Belle Isle campground. It was a pleasant and very scenic and peaceful paddle. We were protected from the weather in all directions except up—that would be the rain.

Belle Isle Campground was something else! More like a small city with as many shelters as the rest of the Island, it seemed. I think it is the site of a former settlement. The crown jewel of this village is the communal fire-place and a cooking oven left over from the original settlers. Several boaters were eagerly burning wood in the pit and drying themselves off. The bay in front of the main site offers plenty of protection from anything but direct east winds. I would like to return here some day—great accommodations and a perfect base for explorations of this diverse area.

At the dock we met a diving boat. Two scuba divers were in the water looking for treasure. When they emerged, they showed us a collection of forks, knives, and cups. The captain shared with us that they tried to go back to Rock Harbor that morning. Once they left the protection of the island, they were slammed by a couple of waves so hard that everything ended on one side of the boat. They promptly decided to turn around and head back for safety. To go with the story, we had the forecast calling for 30 knot winds from the north. We talked to these friendly folk for a while, waded back to our craft in the 50-degree waters and paddled off toward Locke Point. We were looking at about 6 miles of unprotected steep shoreline to the point. Will we see the winds as forecasted? The chart showed another half a mile of shoals extending directly from the Locke Point. The shoals warranted a navigational buoy.

We had an alternative on this route. If in trouble, we could have taken cover in the Lone Cove then made a short portage to Stockly and Five Finger Bays and eventually portaged from the Five Finger Bay to Duncan Bay if necessary. Neither one of us was keen on portaging but it was somewhat comforting to know that we had this escape route and were not sentenced to paddling rough water without appeal.

As we paddled NE with rock walls to our starboard, head wind, and 5' reflecting swells we could clearly see the Passage Island with a tempting lighthouse in the distance! Only three nautical miles separate Passage from Blake Point and form the water distances are notoriously hard to judge. Were it not for head winds and with some more time to spare I would have definitely suggested a visit there.

As the chart indicated, the shoals from Lock Point were not exactly subtle or small. After a while of paddling in confusing water, all you need is a strong stomach to keep sea sickness at bay. Otherwise, as long as you turn the hips and spine into a universal joint and don't tighten the screws in the midsection too tight, going along is not all that difficult. Every once in a while you may feel a little off balance but that is nothing a quick slap of a brace won't rectify. A blade in the water is often all you will need.

Now, taking three to five foot breaking waves on the beam of a loaded boat is a whole different matter. As we approached closer to Locke Point, there was one substantial group of rocks a couple hundred feet off the cliffs. The waves broke on them and then continued on to rebound from the vertical wall. The distance between the end of the breakers and the wall was just short enough to make me question the safety of passing through there. Paddling on the open water side to avoid the breakers would have required a significant detour. There was also a section of very confused water where the rocks began to separate farther and farther away from the Island. There was a small islet further to the NE which caused some wave refraction and diffraction. Out of nowhere, big waves would surge up there, break, and disappear. What to do? Which to go?

Before I had a chance to mention any of this internal dialogue to him, Russ darted to starboard and decidedly went for the narrow passage in between the rocks and the Island. I, in the meantime, was leaning toward the outside route and ended up well to port of Russ. I couldn't have followed him without either crossing through the breakers or back-paddling. So I continued on separated from Russ by an impenetrable rock pile covered in white froth of breaking waves. All of a sudden, and for the first time on the trip, I was on my own! The conditions we paddled for the past couple of days did not feel quite as thrilling anymore. Objectively speaking, they were quite scary! I was also in no position to help Russ quickly if something happened to him, nor did I want to go into that narrow passage.

… but nothing did happen. Keeping Russ in the corner of my eye, stroke by stroke I was approaching the section where the broken 3-5' swells were meeting reflections from the Island at a 90 degree angle. The wave pattern in this spot was highly variable and unpredictable—one second it would be completely flat and the next waves would crash into each other from the opposite directions. I tightened my grip on the paddle, tucked the body lower to the deck and, when the time seemed right, hurled the boat toward the boiling water. "Paddle with purpose, paddle with purpose" I recited the words from a surf video I viewed recently. Everything else went away for a minute—it was just me and a stretch of boiling water to pass through. I felt quite dramatic at the time. Meeting Russ on the other side was a big relief!

Next was the Locke Point. We could see the breakers on the shoal from miles away. The sight gave anxiety plenty of time to build up. As we approached closer, neither one of us was keen on paddling through close to the point. We kept on paddling NE away from our destination. The buoy marking the end of shoal was a third of a mile away. Fortunately, about half way between the Point and the buoy we saw a section of the shoal where waves did not seem to be breaking. "Let's go for it!" One after another we quickly darted through the opening and turned SW toward Duncan Bay Narrows campsite.

What a joy to paddle down-wind being followed by sizable swell. We both tried to catch some surf rides but the boats were just too heavy and swells not steep enough. The fine stern of the Nordkapp is designed to stay submerged in the following seas when a wave starts to overtake the boat. That's what gives the boat its legendary tracking ability. Unfortunately, that also means that the initial lift from the wave is dampened by this reduced buoyancy of the stern. The gravity does not kick in as much as with a fat-ass swede-form boat. Oh, the compromises. In the end, we definitely felt a substantial push as the waves were passing by but they were not steep enough or we were not strong enough to catch any real rides. It did not help that we kept in the middle of the channel. Shallower sides may have caused the swells to steepen up a bit. Nevertheless, 1.5 miles from Locke Point to the campsites went by very quickly!

Duncan Bay Narrows campsite has two shelters on a little clearing extending into the lake. There is a dock for larger boats here as well. To our great joy one of the shelters was still open! An older couple of canoeists occupied the other one. These guys have been involved with the IRNP for over 30 years. From what they shared with us, they have been coming to the park at least once every single year. The husband was particularly talkative and gave us pointers on what to see on the way to Rock Harbor. Most importantly, we got an insider's tip on spotting moose.

Bagels for dinner—toasted on real fire which we were able to make in a BBQ grille. That was our first and only fire of the entire trip if you don't count the stoves. Russ even pulled out two naturally chilled 24oz. cans of beer from beneath the decks! We dined like there was no tomorrow. Actually, if we don't get stuck for some strange reason, there really was no tomorrow. We will have lunch at the Lodge and dinner on the mainland.

All of our gear was still wet but the rain has finally stopped! The couple from the other shelter has returned from their fishing excursion and the husband has promptly found his way right to our dinner table with a "What's up guys?!" and a smile on his face. He was still fishing. The wife came over to fetch him a couple of minutes later. It seemed like he was not leaving on his own.

The ferry departs just after 2PM tomorrow and we still have a couple of miles to cover. A short side-trip to Lookout Louise was on the schedule as well. We hit the sacks right after the sun went down.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Isle Royale, Day 5: Todd Harbor – Hawk Island – Birch Island Campground – McCargoe Cove

Total Distance=13.2 miles; Time=5hrs

After going at it all night, the rain has slowed down and stopped as we were eating lazy breakfast and drinking hot beverages to shake the damp blues away. Sufficiently emancipated from the lethargic claws of the night, we decided to take a hike to Hatchet Lake. The gear would get some chance to dry and we would get some workout for our legs and feet after a long day of paddling. Of course, we also wanted to see some of the island interior.

Or so we thought… Little past half way to Hatchet we decided to turn back. The whole hike all we could see was aspen forest and undergrowth of all sorts. Abundance of fat ripe thimbleberries was the only prize worth claiming on this hike. The rain came drizzling back and by the time we were back at the campsite it was raining full steam again. We missed our window to pack the gear without rain. Packing the wet stuff away and putting on the wet paddling clothes was just not all that much fun. Be that as it may, we paddled out to the northeast into some strong northeast winds well past noon. Protected inside the harbor at first and then fully exposed within a couple of miles.

This was the day when reflections started. Not the deep introspective kind, three-to-five foot waves amplified by the vertical shoreline stayed with us for the next three days. The waves coming with a northerly flavor made for very interesting and lively paddling conditions. I've paddled in reflecting water for minutes at a time before—never for hours, leave alone, days after days. To be fair, there were long breaks in the chop as we hid behind large off-shore isles. Otherwise, staying in the confused water close to shore offered some protection from the winds which were partially blocked by the island. Just off shore, the land quickly ascended up to the maximum elevation of about 800 feet above the lake level. Paddling out to avoid water moguls was not going to make forward progress any easier. With all this unanticipated excitement, it wasn't long before I needed to answer the nature call as well a little rest in the rain on the naked Hawk Island. Getting used to constant unpredictable rocking from all sides takes nerve and time. In spite of the novelty, though, the urgency with which the nature call came did not feel quite right. I have a stretchy bladder; we left Todd Harbor merely an hour ago, and I don't remember needing to go that badly since I was a child.

After the welcome break on the inhospitable rocks of the Hawk, we were promptly back at it again. Paddled in the lee of this small island but before long the going turned into a grueling push in confused waves and into the strong wind that was backing to the north. After about an hour of this struggle we decided not to push for the shelter-less Pickerel Cove campground we had indicated on our trip plan. Instead, we would seek shelter on Birch Island just inside the McCargoe Cove. The thought of erecting a wet tent and spending another night in the damp cold rain was not very appealing to say the least!

What luck! The only shelter on Birch Island is unoccupied, carefully cleaned by whoever camped there last and what a beautiful view of the Cove from the "window!" There was also a campsite on this Island just up the hill from the shelter and a lonely outhouse after another short climb. We had the whole island to ourselves. The shelter itself is a thin-walled wood structure about 20'x12' and 10' tall in the front sloping down to about 8' in the back. Back and side walls are solid wood boards while the front wall is fine bug-proof screen. The whole structure is built a couple of feet off the ground. There was nothing on the inside except for a broom and a small dust pick-up as well as nails randomly pounded into the walls and the rafters. Oh, yes, and some graffiti—mostly tasteful.

We quickly dropped all the heavy gear out of the hatches into the shelter and set out to explore the McCargoe Cove. What a difference paddling an empty boat on flat water when compared to one bursting at the seams with gear in waves and wind! I never thought paddling flat water can feel that good.

The cove proved to be absolutely pristine. A couple of sailboats kindly left the shelter to us. They were gently swaying in the calm waters of the bay. Loons and a curious playful otter greeted us from the water. At the southern tip of the cove there is a small stream running to the Chickenbone Lake. We followed it in hoping to catch a glimpse some moose. The underwater kitchen was fully stocked for these majestic animals. Moose like to munch on water vegetation. We saw plenty of paths leading form the banks to the main river channel. These channels looked like likely moose entry points but, alas, there was no moose for us on that day. I can't blame them either—in the non-stop rain like this, who thinks about eating?

The little river drastically reduced in size at the site of the portage to Chickenbone Lake. It's quite possible that the wider river bed is a man-made artifact. We turned around. To our surprise, the playful otter was waiting for us back at the entrance to the Cove. So we played with it for a while. Subsequently, we paddled by McCargoe Cove campground where several shelters were clearly occupied and two large sailboat were moored at the dock.

The day was quickly drawing to a close so back to the shelter on Birch Island for dinner it was for us. Then all we wanted to do was dry and dry, and dry out, and dry off, and dry any way possible. It was till raining outside so we cooked our meals inside the shelter. There are no bears or raccoons to worry about at Isle Royale. The shelter walls are strong enough to protect us against squirrels and other rodents.

  Go to: Day 6Day 7 Reflections

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Isle Royale, Day 4: Rainbow Point – America Wreck – Huginnin Cove – Little Todd Harbor – Todd Harbor Campground

Total Distance=28.8 miles; Time=11hrs.

Down with the sun and up with the sun. We rose with heavy eyelids for an early start this morning. If all goes according to plan, the most unforgiving section of the trip is ahead of us this afternoon. Not just that, the start of that section is still 10 miles away.

Fortunately, a short hike to the lake revealed that the violent stormy seas of yesterday were gone as if with a swoosh of the magic wand! I mean completely and totally gone. I could swear I still heard the roar of the wind in the trees but there was absolutely no wind and no more than six inches of gentle swell left over. When we ended the day last night the Lady was still cursing like an old sailor. In the morning she was barely willing to move, smiling and lazily yawning like a pampered princess after a good night of sleep. It was hard to believe but, there we were, covering the calmest miles of our entire trip and only a short night's sleep separated us from a day of the most violent weather of the trip. That's Lake Superior at its best!

Even in the lower 60s the day was too warm for comfort at 7am. With the drysuits and skimpy insulation under them we were dunking into the cold 50 degree water often to keep from overheating. Given yesterday's delay, we skipped the scheduled stop in Rainbow Cove and did not do the hike to Feldtmann Lake after all. Bummer.

Instead, a straight line crossing from Rainbow to Cumberland Point was the route. From there we took a turn to the NNE toward 4-mile deep Washington Harbor. A beautiful sight revealed itself after rounding the Cumberland Point. Low shoreline shooting up a couple hundred feet into steep hills all covered with thick lush green trees. Multiple islands scattered at the mouth of this harbor like a crumb trail tempting us to go in. Unfortunately, we lost too much distance yesterday and decided to push on. A stop at Windigo was not in our schedule (or whatever loose structure there was resembling a schedule) unless a need of some sort came up for resupply. What we saw there was seductive. With time to spare, I would have liked to explore that stretch. Secretly, skipping this excursion was also our strategy for having an excuse to come back…

Now that we were travelling to the NNE, a nice half-foot swell funneled into the mouth of the harbor and, along with some wind, it helped push us forward very nicely. It was a fresh and most welcome change from battling the head winds on previous three days.

We passed Grace Island campsite and were glad that we didn't push for it the day before. Multiple fishing boats were moored there and we could clearly hear loud banging of the shelter doors and careless yells of the inhabitants. Then a one of them showed up on the dock with hands full of coolers and other gear and a cigarette in his mouth hanging down to his knees. It was probably one of the accounts of camping on Grace Island that I have read, but from the cockpit in the peaceful water it looked like an epitome of disrespect. Not a pleasant re-introduction to our own species after two-and-a-half days in the wild by any stretch.

Past the mouth of Washington Harbor, right where the shoreline takes a turn from NNE to ENE we stopped to see the remains of sunken cruise ship America. The wreck is marked by a buoy and was clearly visible under our hulls. Former NPS employee planted the seeds of doom around this site in our heads. We were looking forward to this place as a highlight of the trip; however, the ominous words of the ranger echoed in the head and I did feel uneasy over the sunken giant. A single dog perished in this accident but the ghost of drowned victims from other wrecks must travel and change their homes freely underwater. Real or not, I felt them there under the surface. Can't describe in words what it was but something dark and foreboding clearly lurked under the waters.

As we were taking a short break on top of America, a ferry from Grand Portage emerged from behind Thompson Island. I decided to entertain the passengers and test the crew by capsizing as soon the wave from its wake hit my quarter. I was due for a refresher anyway… The ghosts underneath wanted me. I failed two rolls in a row in calm water after practicing all morning long and hitting the one that counted on the previous day. No one on the ferry seemed to notice or care. I felt the chills of the ghostly touch quickly melt away as I saw Russ calmly standing guard a short distanced away. I didn't realize it at the time, but now I recall—I did not roll anymore that day. Or for the rest of the trip for that matter…

We quietly slipped through the North Gap and paddled on to Huginnin Cove. The shoreline on the north side of the island was as predicted—rocky and steep with few landing areas. Huginnin Cove itself was a gorgeous spot for a rest stop! According to the information we had, it was the last comfortable one for the next 13 miles too. We found a sole couple in a campsite on the NE point there. They bent over backwards trying to hurry up and vacate the beautiful site as quickly as they could for our lunch break. Every camper we met on the island without exception was overly nice and congenial. We decided to take a long lunch and cook at the campsite rather than have cold snacks. It turned into a two-hour ordeal. After a short while I began to feel cold. Managing core temperature while paddling and then jumping into and out of the drysuit is a tricky business. A fleece was needed to keep comfortable. A hot cup of tea helped too!

From Huginnin we checked the weather radio and departed on to the 13 mi stretch without much landing opportunity reassured by what we heard. Along the way there were plenty of places to land when the water is calm; however, anything but the south wind can produce significant waves through here and with the waves the landing could become very tricky. Most of the landing platforms we saw were tiny rock beaches with nowhere to go after landfall. They were surrounded by steep rock walls much like solitary prison cells. Land there a kayaker in trouble could but not much else. Not much good standing there and getting hammered by every wave. Good thing there is not much fetch from the north here. Waves from the east or the west can easily build to substantial heights and bend onto shore due to refraction and diffraction.

Steep walls of rock ranging from several to hundreds of feet tall were nice to look at first. After a while the paddle started to drag. Getting habituated to mile after mile of cliffs without much change in scenery is very easy. Flat water is not my favorite pastime. And then, just as I was ramping up the internal complaints, what a treat!

A couple hundred feet in front of us a bold eagle suddenly folded its wings and fell into the water from about 50 feet in the air. Big splash and it emerged in the air with a sizable fish in its talons. It flew to shore to eat on a cliff but abandoned the catch as we approached within about several hundred feet. Very skittish these birds are! The bird flew away and it did not look like it was going to return after we passed. I wish we knew it was that easy to scare—we would have paddled farther from shore. We could almost touch the seagulls with the paddle and really did not expect to scare such a magnificent bird so easily.

Around 6 PM we pulled into Little Todd Harbor. Nice campsites in the aspen forest there with a nice group of campers. There was some temptation to call it a day but we decided to push on for another 6 miles to Todd Harbor. The campers were clearly entertained by our arrival. They even snapped some pictures which I received in the e-mail a week or so later. How's that for camaraderie! Russ was invigorated by their account of a moose sighting at McCargoe Cove. The hikers were not too excited about their hike from Todd Harbor to Little Todd—boring flat terrain in the forest with nothing much to see. And the rain did not help at all.

By the time we reached Todd Harbor the wind from the east was starting to pick up and waves were approaching 6". The scenery between the two Todds was very similar the earlier stretch from Huginnin—steep never-ending rock walls. The harbor was much bigger compared to Little Todd and offered a camping base with multiple shelters, individual and group campsites. Despite all that space, it was quite busy when we arrived just short of the sunset. Two campsites were still unoccupied and we claimed one for the night. Two patches of hard ground surrounded by dense woods less than 100' from the main trail—definitely not something to write home about.

By the time we secured the boats on shore and carried our gear to the campsite it started to rain. Then is started to pour down really hard. The tarp served great for unpacking, changing, and cooking that night. Don't leave home without it. It rained pretty hard all night but I was too tired to be bothered by it much. The last forecast before drifting into the dream world was for building winds and seas overnight and into the morning hours. The wind was supposed to shift more to the north in the early afternoon so there was no rush to push into the NE head winds.

Go to: Day 5Day 6Day 7Reflections

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Isle Royale: Day 3, Atwood Beach – Unnamed Lake – Long Point –Rainbow Point

Total Distance = 10 miles; Time = 5 hours.

The morning forecast reiterated last night's news. Even at 7am the Rock of Ages weather station already reported 25 knot winds and 6' waves. Our beach faced to the southeast so we were protected by the forest and the small point to the west. We did not feel much wind in the campsite. As we prepared to leave the sun peaked through the clouds and we took that as a good omen. Launching was easy into placid 1-2' waves.

As we rounded the small point to the west of Atwood Beach, the waves were noticeably larger than the day before. Forecast was holding true. We had to keep a little bit off shore as the 3-5' waves were breaking all over the place on the McCormick reef. A loaded Nordkapp is not very jittery in the face of the hits from the beam by a broken 2-3' footer. You get hit and lean into the wave with anticipation of being surfed sideways but the wave just passes under. As I was noting that to Russ, the lake quickly reminded me who is the boss. I remember squeezing in between some rocks and the steep shoreline in a place where the waves were smaller. Then, just like that, I was upside down. That's the nature of this ride: it tolerates no sloppiness. Russ, who was further off shore at the time, later told me that it was a rapid succession of breakers one after another that capsized me. As I went under I suddenly became worried because of the close proximity to the shore. I did not have my helmet on. Luckily, I promptly rolled up and quickly paddled some ways off shore to stay out of the breakers for the rest of the day.

As the shoreline rotated clockwise from SE to SW, the wind veered from W to SW and we started to feel it before long. Forward progress slowed even though our boats were loaded up to the hull-deck joint. Being mostly under the water they presented little for the wind to grab on to. We paddled all of 5 miles in 2 hours and stopped for a snack at an unnamed inland lake which we were able to spot from the water. Looked like a prime spot to see moose—shallow and overgrown with all kinds of green. There were tunnels snaking through the lake grass—most likely they were moose paths.

After the break Long Point was our destination. By this time every wave was above eye level and most certainly there were some 8-footers sloshing around. We could see the Long Point clearly in the distance. What gave it away was a band of threatening breakers. The chart shows shallow water for about a half mile to the east of the point. This was where we were coming from.

Long Point demanded a wide breadth. Even with that each one of us caught some breaking surf. It was Russ's turn to get wet. Focused on the task at hand I lost sight of him behind me for a minute or so. Not like paying attention to him would have made much difference in these conditons—I could see his kayak for several seconds at a time and then it would disappear in the trough for a good while. Close to the shoal, we could not stay too close together.

After I came through on the south side of the shoals, I turned around to look and saw Russ's determined figure climbing onto the shoulder of a braking wave. From the back, the breakers look even more threatening. Something was not right—Russ was farther behind than I remembered seeing him last. And, oh yes, he was missing his signature hat with the piece of cloth for a neck shade on the back. As he got closer, I noticed that he was missing his sunglasses too. I figured one of the waves he was breaking through must have hit him in the face. That's all it takes to lose your gear in conditions like these. I was lucky to ride over the tops of the rollers I met. Perhaps I paid my dues during the capsize next to shore. Turned out Russ was knocked over and had to roll up paying his homage to the Lady in the process.

From Long Point to the Head we stayed well off shore. The breakers closer in were getting to big to be taken casually and definitely not to be used for amusement. The shoreline sand beaches were gone and it was all rock again. Landing, in case we needed it, would not have been easy. There were plenty of flat rock beaches but there also plenty of rock walls shooting straight up from the water.

Shallow seabed extends even farther from the Head than from the Long Point. On this stretch we were now facing directly into the wind. The breakers were definitely growing more threatening with passing time. We obeyed their warnings and paddled even farther off shore. Every time we thought we were far enough, we would see explosions up ahead and end up turning to port—a little more insurance.

We were discussing our options no more than 10 feet from each other. Russ noted that these were the biggest conditions he's experienced in a kayak. I shared with him that I was feeling quite severe pain in the abdomen from not having taken care of the nature call in the morning. I was holding it in for some time now and the pressure was rising rather than going away. All the action in the torso was not helping a bit. Adrenaline produced in response to stress constricts the vessels further which, again, was not good under the circumstances. That's when it happened. All of a sudden Russ was just gone! I was looking straight up and all I could see was the white of his underhull. Next, even that quickly vanished as he went down of the other side of this steep huge wave. I think I could have reached its top but only had I reached up with a fully extended paddle.

Getting farther and farther away from shore we finally rounded the Head and started looking for a beach to land. I could not hold it any longer. No landing spots were immediately apparent with all the cliffs, rocks and breaking surf. We rafted up and put our helmets on. After a while, we spotted two small rock and sand beaches next to each other in a small mini-bay surrounded by steep cliffs. Looked like access to the forest access was possible from there. I just had to land. We probably caught a break in between big waves and the beaches were also protecte from the Rainbow point directly to the north but landing was unremarkable. A couple of side surfs in mild 2' bubbling mounds of water and I landed on a sand beach about 30' wide. The waves that produced the white water were no larger than 4'. Russ picked a somewhat bigger south facing rock beach a hundred yards to the north. Ohhh, sweet relief!

When it was all said and done and we reconvened for a conference, it was an early 3pm. We only covered half the distance to Huginnin Cove. After a little trip to the forest I felt instantly better and was ready to head back into the dishwasher. Russ, somewhat unexpectedly, was less eager to get back out there. The wind was whistling through the trees, the waves were crashing on shore, it was pretty clear that the seas were still building. In that light, Russ suggested that we stay put for the day. I was still high from the earlier paddle but, in reality, little consideration was needed to see the wisdom of this call. As much as I was eager to get on the roller-coasters again, we've spent enough energy as it was and progress with the beam seas was not going to be very great.

So we unpacked and built our tents in a little overgrown meadow well away from the water. Close to shore it was way too noisy. Then we cooked our dinners and after some picture taking time the darkness was quickly descending upon us. Where did the time go? Oh, I remember: we chased the camp fox. I took off my wet paddling clothes, changed, and went to the kayaks to get the rest of the gear. Russ hung our dry suits and under-layers to dry. After a while I noticed that one of my booties was missing. The rangers warned us about the foxes that steal anything and everything left unattended. The likelihood of one of them snatching my smelly shoe while we were 100 yards away separated by thick bush was credible. That would have been bad news but, luckily, the boot was stuck in the leg sleeve of the dry suit, not stolen.

We considered a hike to Feldtmann lake but by the time the dinner was done it was really time for bed! With the energy surges built on stormy water gone, dry and warm after dinner, fatigue set in very quickly. We enjoyed some down time and were in the tents shortly after sunset when there was still plenty of light in the sky. The forecast for the morning was clean. We'll have an early start and make up the distance.

Go to: Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7 Reflections

Monday, August 17, 2009

Isle Royale, Day 2: Chippewa Harbor—Schooner Island—Siskiwit Bay—Houghton Point—Fishermen’s Home Cove—Atwood Beach

Total Distance=24 miles; Time=9.5 hours.

Up at the break of dawn the next morning—it sure would have been nice to explore Chippewa Harbor for a day or two. As it was, we headed straight out of the harbor gates. It took over 3 hours to cook and eat the breakfast, break down camp, and pack our boats. We took off at 10:20am. There was some confusion about time zones among other people on the island. A ranger later told us that Windigo people prefer CST while on the Rock Harbor side they use EST. The ferry from MN probably runs on CST schedule, the ones from Michigan use EST.

When we exited Chippewa Harbor, a familiar scene of head wind, white caps and 1-3' waves greeted us from the Lady. We paddled for 2.5 hours in these lively conditions checking out various inlets and doing some mild rock hopping on our way to the SW. In full sunshine and the temperature crawling into the 70s we took our lunch break in an unnamed bay just north of the Schooner Island. The water temperature in the bay measured in the low to mid 50s but bare feet felt tingly in just a minute of immersion. Had I consulted the bigger charts, we would have probably taken a short side-hike to an abandoned mine about a quarter mile from our lunch spot. No worries, it'll still be there. We thoroughly enjoyed two hours of sun and drying out on a pebble beach.

From here we decided to forego a scheduled stop at Malone Bay and paddled a straight line course across the Siskiwit Bay to the Houghton point. The plan was to make good time at the beginning of the trip so that we could play in the multitude of bays and islands on the NE side of the island if there was time left over. With the brisk 15 knot wind from the SW we had to work hard to keep reasonable pace. The crossing ahead of us was 9 miles—no joke paddling directly into the wind. The few times that we stopped paddling, GPS showed that in less than a minute we were drifting in the opposite direction at over 1MPH.

We decided against paddling to the chain of islands starting with the Isle Royale Lighthouse on Menagerie Island. This chain separates Siskiwit Bay from Lake Superior and extends straight northeast for almost the entire 9-mile stretch from Point Houghton. That detour wouldn't have barely added a mile to the crossing; however, the rocks and bays and who knows what other wonders that lie there may have delayed an excited paddler for longer than we could afford. If our paddling in the first part of the day was any indication, we may have even camped on one of those miniature islands or big rocks.

In retrospect, following the b-line was a mistake. The crossing was arduous, long and boring. Lulled into complacency by the beauty of the shoreline so far, we skipped on interesting sights and exploration to make time. And what did we get? Three hours of paddling into 15 knot head wind fully exposed. Had we taken the detour to the south, we probably would have been able to hide from the wind somewhat and paddle faster overall. Not to mention the sights we missed out on. The only distraction during the crossing was a NPS service boat that steamed to the south of us and appeared to dock at Senter Point. NPS maintains a full fleet of service boats on the island. We never found out what kind of construction was taking place.

In the end, reach Point Houghton we did without much to tell about the crossing. The day was beautiful, the water was alive, and we were happy to reach land for variety's sake. We didn't even get hot with the cool wind from the head.

Following the shore from Point Houghton we soon reached the Fisherman's Home Cove. A small residence can be found there with some of last private landowners who still live on the island. When Island Royale was declared a National Park, those who had property there had an option to retain their rights until death. The shrewd ones registered their properties to their newborns so it will be 80 years and more until the entire island becomes public land. The Fisherman's Home Cove is a short and very shallow bay with several buildings on the south shore. Signs tell the paddler to, pretty much, get out of there—a clever attempt to be funny but it did not get me to smile. This sarcasm just seemed out of place at a national park.

Our destination for the day was Atwood beach. We haven't really seen any beaches so far but this stretch was advertised as a pristine location. We still had a couple of hours of daylight and about 6 miles to go. We did not know the distance exactly since Atwood was not on our charts. Realistically speaking, we could have stopped anywhere along this shore. There were many red sand beaches and we had our cross-country permit. We decided to push on for the goal and see if Atwood Beach was really as special as they say. For some reason, they named that place while dozens of other beaches on this stretch are unnamed. There's gotta be something to it, right?

As we moved west, there were fewer and fewer rocks and sandy beaches grew bigger and closer together. After a short while, each one of them looked pretty enough to be the Atwood Beach. We finally reached the biggest one of them all and called it a day. Upon closer examination, GPS revealed that the location was, in fact, Atwood. A small headland on the west end distinguished it from the other ones. There was also a small welcoming committee in the person of one otter that was playing in the water just off shore. While walking on the beach to stretch the legs, we also spotted plentiful interwoven moose and wolf tracks. The imagination had to do the rest as the animals themselves were gone. The forest bordering the beach was pretty much impenetrable and no marked trails lead to this beach from the island interior. I am sure there are some moose trails but we did not look.

The beach we picked for the night was quite long. It seemed like a half of a mile so it took us some time to pick the perfect spot to pitch our tents. As soon as we did that and hung up all the paddling clothes to dry, it started to pour. It was getting dark by then so we cancelled our dinner reservations and retired to our tents to rest. Granola was my dinner for the night. Outside, it felt like it rained all night long and pretty hard at that. The forecast for the following day was not encouraging: 25 knot winds from the west backing to southwest, 3-5' waves in the morning building to 5-8' by the afternoon. We could see the distinct front approach from the NW for the good part of the afternoon as another one passed to the south.

Overall, a great day of paddling! Perfect weather, just enough excitement in the water, beautiful scenery, good company and bodies still fresh.

Go to: Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7 Reflections

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Isle Royale: Day 1: Rock Harbor – West Caribou Campground – Chippewa Harbor

Total Distance=14.7 miles, Time=4.5 hours.

Upon arrival to Rock Harbor, all campers are required to go through a short 10-15 minute orientation to the leave-no-trace principles and practices that apply to camping on the island. Like on order, stiff rain started pouring almost as soon as the ranger began talking. Another good introduction as to what to expect here.

After the talk we had to register our itinerary at the ranger station and get our camping permits. We took out a special (free) cross-country permit which allows one to camp in designated wilderness areas. Practically the entire shore of IR is open to wilderness camping but several interior areas are off limits for humans. The whole registration bit is done to keep track of the campers and aid in search and rescue efforts, so we were told. The rangers did not seem very interested in the details of our plans.

To pack the boats, we had to carry them to a pebble beach close to the Lodges—about 200 yards to the west of the dock. As we unloaded our riches a pair of kayak fishermen pulled in—both of them in cut-off jeans shorts and without any shirts or PFDs. One of them must have been in his early 20s while the other looked like a mature version of Ernest Hemingway. They told us some tall tales of battling 4' seas in their open cockpit kayaks which I found hard to believe. On the other hand, the entire week before our arrival was unseasonably warm in Isle Royale. Close to shore in protected waters of the numerous harbors around the island the attire was probably not all that unreasonable. Nevertheless, safety savvy paddler in me scratched the head for quite a while thinking "Should or shouldn't I?"

A couple of sea kayakers also launched from the same beach. They wore dry tops and thermal pants. The two were headed to Belle Isle and were going to base camp there for 5 days. We named the woman Freya—she looked much like the famed German and maybe even spoke with an accent. She was clearly in charge of the duo and instructed her equally impressively built but physically smaller male partner in the details related to packing, dressing, and launching.

Without much debate we chose the clock-wise course for our trip. The main deciding factor was the prevailing westerly wind and the NW stretch of the island shore where landing site were reportedly scarce. We wanted to do that segment downwind and bet with those odds. At the time, the wind was square from the west southwest.

We touched off at around 2PM and paddled into a gorgeous sunny day with the air temperature in mid-60s. Calm protected waters inside the Rock Harbor were perfect for the beginning of the journey. We knew, however, that 1-3' waves were building with the SW wind on the outside of the protective barrier of small off-shore islands. Within the first half-hour or paddling it started to rain. Hard! We did not mind and actually were even happy about it. Full of energy and hope we greeted the rain as the liberator from the heat that was building up inside the dry suits. There's also something about the rain that makes it all feel so calm and peaceful and mystical. Very appropriate.

Travelling at a brisk 3.5 MPH pace inside the protected Rock Harbor we continued to hear the roar of the waves and the wind on the other side or the barrier. I was growing impatient and eager to heed the calls of the mermaids. Russ seemed perfectly content to paddle inside in peace. As if he knew what challenges the trip will bring us. As if he could tell that we will need to save the energy for what lies ahead. We reached an implicit compromise. A bridge connects the west side of the East Caribou Island to its neighbor. We darted under it and into the wash of the 2-4' waves to the south. The pace slowed somewhat but the enjoyment and the connection with the surroundings grew to compensate. Staying away from the rocky shoreline we paddled to the campsite on West Caribou and took a short snack break there.

After that, we crossed the Middle Islands Passage toward Tonkin and Conglomerate bays passing an abandoned lighthouse to our starboard. The rest of the way to Chippewa Harbor campsite the coast was all exposed. This shoreline was all rock but there were plenty of small inlets or protected landing sites and small pebble beaches. Caught in a storm, a kayaker could find shelter along this stretch and would be able to land without too much trouble.

How quickly the waters calmed upon entering the harbor. A sailboat beaconed from the dock at Chippewa campground. All four shelters were already occupied by backpackers and the group campsite was also inhabited by a lone former park ranger and her sea kayak. She came over to chat later that night and told us about several of her favorite spots on the north shores. Two individual campsites were still open. We took the one on higher ground. It provided a nice partial view of the Chippewa Harbor from the boulders that towered to the northeast. The lower one had a fire ring. We did not know that those are not very common here at Island Royale.

There were also several canoes by the dock. An old man walked toward us from the shelters. He brought his grand-daughters for a canoeing trip. The family took a water shuttle from Rock Harbor and it dropped them at Chippewa. Before we realized that, I was really beginning to doubt the touted speed advantages of a sea kayak over a canoe when I saw an old man with his pre-teen company beat us fair and square to the spot.

Building the tents, hanging the paddling clothes to dry, cooking and eating the dinner quickly wrapped up the day. Down we went with the sun.

Go to: Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6 Day 7Reflections

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Western suburbs of Chicago to Copper Harbor, MI is an all-day trip. I left Naperville about 9AM. In well over an hour I was in Kenosha area where Russ took over the driving. We arrived in Copper Harbor just as the sun set. Along the way, we only stopped for some fresh last-minute groceries in Houghton Wal-Mart—the northern-most biggish city along the way—and took a little side-trip to visit Piers Gorge–the site recently covered by Tom Bamonte's trip report. Otherwise, it was just a long drive. The woods became ever denser with every mile heading north. After Milwaukee, there were few urban areas along the way.

We took a hike at Piers Gorge and watched with excitement as rafts stuffed with thrill-seekers dropped into the white water boils one after another off of a 10' drop. A teenage boy from one of the rafts fell out as the craft went over the falls. The fast-moving water quickly took him and the raft to a boulder known as the VW Beatle. Right as he got close to the rock in the middle of the river, he got himself in between the boulder and the raft. Next moment the raft hit the huge boulder and bounced off of it. The boy disappeared in the white washing machine. I cringed. Luckily, the fella emerged from under the water a couple dozen feet downstream and was promptly fished out by the outfitters camped out on shore and armed with rope-stuffed throw bags.

Copper Harbor is another matter. Here's something that explains the place that it is very well. When we got to the motel located within steps of the ferry dock, we found no one in the office. A list of customers was glued to the inside of the window. It detailed that all guests are to proceed to their rooms and the keys had been left on the table inside. So we stopped to our room. The end of check-in procedure. How's that for safety concerns in the North Woods!

First order of business after settling in the motel was a dry run of kayak packing. We spread the goods on the lawn that separates the motel from Lake Superior—all of 50 feet of it or so—and practiced hard for about an hour with our headlights on. The daylight was all gone. Many things that I planned to take along did not fit. This was, after all, my first long trip out of the boat. Luckily the items that did not make it were luxuries. They stayed behind in Russ's truck without much loss. I believe Russ, who has packed his kayak for camping many times, also had to leave some items in the truck. I believe he mentioned that this was the longest he was going to life out of his Nordkapp. There was something to show for experience. Russ's daily packing chore seemed to go smoother and faster than mine. I will just blame it on the fact that he had those luxurious 16" oval Valley hatches while mine were the poor-man's version—7.5" round ones, all three of them.

Once we were done pretend-packing, about 11PM, we were hungry. We were heading into the wilderness for a week after all. The only burger to be found on the Island was at the Rock Harbor Lodge. Not much remained open in town at this hour. We hit both of the open places. One had the kitchen already closed and offered us quick food. The other one bore a promise of frozen pizza! It sounded mighty good on the night before we will rely on our own cooking skills for a while. It turned out to be a smoky establishment with a loud crowd. In the end, the last supper consisted of French Fries, a gigantic plate of nachos and some local beers. Perfectly willing to gorge ourselves, we could not finish the nacho plate between the two of us!


Kayaks have to be lined up in front of the ferry one hour before departure which meant an early morning for us. 7:30AM EST! I enjoyed every last drop of the hot shower before we stepped onto the cold iron decks of the ferry. The crew hoisted our vessels on the top decks and tied them up to the railings. The gear bags were also whisked up onto the upper deck. I found it to be kind of strange that so much weight was being loaded so high on the ferry. In a kayak that spells a date with the bottom. Before long, though, we found ourselves on the front deck of the Isle Royale Queen IV heading into a cold morning breeze northwest toward the Island of Kings. The day was just perfect—stiff breeze from the NW, 1-2' waves, some clouds and refreshing temperatures somewhere in the 50s.

The three-hour trip went quickly as we chatted away with a father-daughter pair of hikers from Upper Michigan. While on the ship, the crew collected the $4 daily fees from all the campers—a good time-saving measure.

It's probably best that I did not see the island on the horizon until we were practically in Rock Harbor. The off-shore rocks and islets in the mist were exactly what I pictured the island to be in my dreams. Peace and serenity all wrapped in the shroud of mystery and accompanied by a harmonious roar of wind and breaking wave best describe the feelings that flooded the consciousness. I was truly moved by the first sight of the island. The anticipation of several months has boiled up to the emotional climax. This was the emotional high of the whole trip for me—the arrival, the promise, the free reign for the imagination and anticipation!

Go to: Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6 Day 7Reflections

Friday, August 14, 2009


Here are a couple of web resources I consulted in preparation for the trip. They are in the order in which I read them:

  • Rogue Paddler sentimental account of Isle Royale circumnavigation with some inter-personal drama involved
  • Another circumnavigation account by Chicago's own Dave Naudi with some technical detail and safety tips
  • Canoe & Kayak article on the destination
  • SKOAC has several trips to this location including the best picture galleries that I was able to find
  • And, of course, Jim Dufresne book. This seems to be the ultimate wilderness guide to the destination. The water portion is largely for canoeists or kayakers who want to explore the inland lakes of Isle Royale or stay in protected harbors.
Relevant NOAA Nautical Charts include the 14968 (1:120,000 scale) or three times more detailed 14976 (1:40,000). Zoom in on the map and you can view the charts on-line. A little bit more work and you can download them for a more detailed look on your own desktop—see this "How-To" write-up. I bought the more detailed chart but, in the end, decided that printouts from the less detailed chart #14968 would be sufficient for our purposes. In retrospect, I missed the greater detail of the #14976 on the trip as little bays and inlets were sometimes difficult to judge accurately from the larger-scale map. Larger scale charts were sure convenient, though. In general, I would say that the National Geographic Tails Illustrated map would probably be the best resource to guide a circumnavigation. Rocks and depth markings on the NOAA charts are not particularly relevant for kayakers. It's good to know about the shoals during stormy conditions; however, these can be noted at home and maybe even transferred to the topographical land map. The only really useful thing that NOAA charts have is the information on navigational lights, so if you plant to get far off-shore or travel at night NOAA charts would come very handy.

Sticking with the topic of navigation, both Russ and I relied pretty heavily on the Garmin GPS. Russ had an old Legend with some recreational maps of the US and I have uploaded topographical maps of Michigan downloaded from GPS File Depot. Here's also a link to Isle Royale on-line forum thread which includes files with points of interests for Garmin as well as in general GPX format.

Camping on Isle Royale is on the first-come-first-served basis—in other words, you cannot reserve a specific campsite. In our case, we did not even know if we will paddle clockwise or counter-clockwise until we got there—the weather was to decide. Regardless, the park service requires that each camping party fill out an itinerary with a camping site indicated for each night's stay. A cross-country camping permit is also available. This free option allows one to camp anywhere on the Island bar a few areas reserved for wildlife and exclusion zones around trails as well as established camping sites. Most of these are on the island interior so a kayaker with the cross-country permit can basically camp along the entire coastline of the island.

National Data Buoy Center maintains an overlay on Google maps.

Buoys 45001 and 45006 will give you wave heights, water and air temperatures for the area in the days immediately prior to the trip. There are also two weather stations on the west (Rock of Ages) and east (Passage Island Lighthouse) sides of the island. These are the best sources for wind and temperature information. At the time of the writing, these weather stations were only useful in trip preparation. Who knows, maybe by the time you're reading this, real time access to these from the cockpit of the kayak will be available.