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

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