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.

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