|Trip Report: Paddling & Portaging Isle Royale
by Tom Sabotta, Joe Trumm, & Gregg Stark
|Joe Trumm (left) Gregg Stark (right)|
From Idea to Adventure. John Pearson and John Craun had just completed their presentations at the January 2011 Indian Creek Nature Center Paddle Day, sharing beautiful photos and interesting stories from their adventures on Isle Royale. Tom remained in his seat as the crowd filtered out. I sat down next to him and asked whether he had enjoyed the presentations. He replied that he had, paused a moment, then suggested that perhaps we should visit Isle Royale "before we get any older . . . while we still can." Thus began the adventure of helping Tom buy his first kayak, recruiting Joe as our third crew member (helping reduce the average age of the crew), improving our paddling skills, and planning our route, gear, and food.
We realized that our skills and kayaks (14-15 ft) were not adequate for paddling Lake Superior around the perimeter of Isle Royale, as exhibited by Pearson and Craun, but we were intrigued by a north-south paddling and portaging route described in an IR guidebook and discussed on the IR web forum. Plans developed, gear lists were exchanged, reservations were secured, and the days flew by as we progressed toward the last week of July.
Saturday afternoon, we loaded our kayaks on Tom's pickup truck, loaded most of our gear under the topper, and then enjoyed a "last meal" with all of our spouses.
Sunday morning at 6:00 AM, after a final check of roof racks, gear on board, and a couple of photos, we were headed north, through the Twin Cities, through Duluth, and on along the North Shore to Grand Portage. We checked in at the Grand Portage Lodge & Casino around 5:00 PM, then confirmed our route to the marina and Voyageur II dock, as well as the travel time to Ryden's Café just below the Canadian border.
Day 1. Grand Portage to Chickenbone West Campground.
Departure went as planned-up at 5:00 AM, check out of the Casino Lodge, repack a few things, 6:00 breakfast at Rydens (including a toast to our
|Voyager II |
success with Dramamine and coffee), 6:45 transferring gear and kayaks to the Voyageur II. By the time the Voyageur II cast off at 7:30, it was carrying our three kayaks plus one canoe and a full load of passengers. The canoe belonged to Tracy and Miranda, a young Missouri couple we had met via the IR forum and met in person during breakfast at Ryden's. They would be paddling and portaging a route very similar to ours, but a day or two behind us, spending about 8 days on the island.
Lake Superior is definitely "big water," but it was relatively calm as we left Grand Portage, with patches of morning fog hugging the shore and some of the islands. We took turns enjoying the view from various point along the rail, visiting over the loud throb of the engines, sipping the complementary coffee, and getting our sea legs. The first couple of hours passed quickly, the mound of IR came into view, and soon we were wending our way between rocky islands covered in dark green conifers.
We arrived at Windigo, on the western end of IR, at 10:00, and received the ranger briefing on "no trace left behind" protocol, along with the latest updates on weather, trail conditions, water quality, & general safety. I proceeded to file our trip plan at the ranger office, while Tom and Joe had time for a quick tour of the general store and wildlife exhibits. For those traveling to IR on the Voyageur II, the $5 per day camping fee is collected when you make your boat reservation (well in advance of your trip), so filing with the ranger only consists of supplying the names of crew members and the campgrounds you plan to utilize on each day of your visit. Having this typed up in advance is helpful, since the Windigo stop only lasts about a half hour.
Lines were cast off, the Voyageur exited Washington Harbor and headed east, affording us an ongoing view of the northwestern shore, where long stretches of vertical cliffs would prevent kayakers from safely coming ashore. Lunch consisted of grazing on ready to eat snacks from our day packs as we viewed scenery of the big island on the starboard side and a string of small, barren islands on the port side.
We arrived at McCargoe Cove, about halfway along the north shore of IR, at 1:30, and quickly unloaded our boats and gear, making room for a couple of Scout groups to load their gear and crews. We watched the Voyageur II head back down the cove, resuming its journey to Rock Harbor, then set about preparing for our first and longest portage-1.2 miles from McCargoe Cove to West Chickenbone Lake.
We were soon learning that a 60 lb. kayak or a 60 lb pack can be a serious challenge on IR's narrow trails, especially the sections of large rocks, slippery mud, wet planks, or steep slopes. Hikers later shared with us that Dramamine suppresses your balance mechanisms, so that may have added to our challenge. We might consider an overnight stop before the first big portage next time.
After completing the two trips to complete the portage, we reloaded our kayaks and launched onto Chickenbone Lake about 4:00. Moments later, we enjoyed a brief downpour which provided a "quick rinse" after the sweating of the portage. The best sites at West Chickenbone Campground were taken, but we were setting up camp by 5:00.
Joe demonstrated the value of beginner's luck, landing a northern pike on
|Joe Trumm (left), Tom Sabotta (right) |
his first retrieve, standing next to our beached kayaks. The fried northern went well with our Mountain House dinners. The mosquitos hadn't been bothersome, with an occasional squirt of deet, but by 9:00 we were ready to avoid them altogether and get some well-earned rest.
Day 2. Chickenbone to Lake Richie Canoe Campground.
The excitement of being on IR roused us out of our tents at 5:00 AM, earlier than subsequent mornings when we had adjusted to "island time." Over a breakfast of Mountain House Eggs & Bacon, paired with cups of fresh-brewed coffee, I confessed to my crew mates that I was going to opt for 3-trip portages, and I would apologize in advance for any delays. Following a brief discussion of trip enjoyment, safety, and our planned schedule, the idea was heartily endorsed by all.
We efficiently broke camp, reloaded the kayaks, paddled 1 mile east along the south shore of Chickenbone, avoiding a pair of loons, and were at the .2 mile portage to Lake Livermore by 9:00. This was our shortest portage, but we learned that each portage provided its unique challenges, especially for someone with a kayak on his head. We were beginning to gain experience at transferring gear between kayaks and packs, a process to be repeated many, many times.
We launched onto Lake Livermore, enjoying a brief one-mile paddle to the west before it was time for another portage, .4 mile to Lake LeSage over steep and wet terrain, with an 80 ft elevation change. Our paddle across Lake LeSage was only 1 mile, but it included passing through a picturesque narrows between tree-covered points. Landing at the start of the next portage, we were greeted by a single moose antler. In many locations, such a prize would have been gone in 5 minutes, but many IR visitors have apparently handled and photographed the antler, then left it for the enjoyment of those who follow.
The portage to Lake Richie was .6 mile, longest of the day, again listed as wet and steep, with a 100 ft. elevation change. It did not seem as difficult as the second portage, but we were glad to complete the third and last portage of the day.
We were well aware of legendary mosquitos of the north, but were pleasantly surprised to find the bug situation very manageable during the last week of July. Applying a little bit of "preventative" deet around the head was helpful on the portages, particularly when you had your head in a kayak and were somewhat defenseless.
A quick .5 mile paddle and we arrived at Lake Richie Canoe Campground. Although we never found an identifying sign for the campground or campsites, we staked out a convenient and scenic spot, and were soon joined by a group of canoe paddlers from Nashville. Our previous campground served both the hiking and portaging trails. We would not be competing with hikers for campsites again until we reached Chippewa Harbor.
Joe and I paddled out on Richie to pump water through our filters. I soon discovered that the input hose and prefilter screen to my Katadyn Hiker Pro had disappeared beneath the waves, teaching me that a "quick-connect" fitting may also be referred to as "quick-disconnect." Since the water in the lakes is already clear of most sludge, the filter still functioned by submersing the inlet port in the lake. We had minimized gear duplication, but did include two water filters, two stoves, and a spare paddle.
Tom and Joe soon each caught a northern, we fried fish and heated Mountain House dinners, recounted the day's experiences, listened to the loons, and turned in tired but certainly not hungry. It had been a great day.
Day 3. Lake Richie to Wood Lake Campground.
We were up at 5:30, enjoyed the sunrise, but then watched it change to overcast. Breakfast was oatmeal or another pack of MH Eggs & Bacon, accompanied by the always-welcome cup of fresh-brewed coffee, and a dessert of peanut butter and jelly smeared on something. Breaking camp was becoming routine, and we were on the water by 8:00 AM.
We covered the 1 mile paddle west on Lake Richie in about 15 minutes; I guess we were anxious to get to the .6 mile portage to Intermediate Lake. This portage includes 120 ft. of elevation change, made more slippery by a light rain. A 3-trip portage means that you hike the trail 5 times (3 forward with gear, 2 empty "backhauls"), so we hiked 3.0 miles, but our kayaks were reloaded and ready to launch on Intermediate by 10:00. The light rain had quit, and we would have overcast for the balance of the day.
We started referring to the short paddling opportunities as "breaks," and enjoyed a 1 mile paddling break before the .4 mile portage to Siskiwit Lake. This turned out to be a relatively easy portage, and we were further pleased to find Siskiwit in a pleasant mood. Siskiwit was the largest lake we would paddle, we were entering the east end, and winds from the west were known to come down its length and create large waves. Such conditions would have caused us to consider options of returning to Intermediate or improvising a campsite (probably frowned upon).
We paddled south on Siskiwit, passing between several islands, each landscaped in its unique combination of rock, moss, conifers, and shrubs. Just through the narrow channel which connects Siskiwit Lake to the much-smaller Wood Lake, we located Wood Lake Campground, highly-praised in guide books and trip reports. Anticipating stiff competition for its campsites, we were surprised and pleased to have first choice for the day. We chose a "primo" spot close to the narrows, smooth rock with a backdrop of trees, open to any possible breeze, with a gentle launch slope into Wood Lake. A few steps and you could view Siskiwit to the north. We quickly converted this little spot of environmental heaven into a gypsy camp, replete with tarp, two tents, small piles of gear, and a clothesline adorned with rinsed and drying nylon.
An afternoon swim was an easy way to cool off and rinse off the residue of hot and humid portages, and was included in almost every day's routine. It was also a convenient opportunity to rinse out clothes, but had to occur fairly early to allow time for the sun and wind to perform the drying. Other than the aforementioned brief or light showers, we had nearly perfect weather, with temperatures around 80 in the day and about 60 at night.
We were soon joined in the campground by a family of four from California (mom & dad, with son & daughter about 10 years old). They had portaged into Wood Lake from the direction we were headed and offered horror stories about the portages they had traversed. Two volunteer naturalists performing loon research were also in camp, and we would run into the "Loon Rangers" again on Ryan Island.
This was the first night that fishing was not productive, but we enjoyed our next flavor of Mountain House freeze-dried cuisine-lasagna, if I remember correctly. We occupied ourselves with fishing, reading, camp chores, and turned in early. Shortly thereafter, we were entertained by a beaver, patrolling in front of our campsite, slapping his tail. Well, it was entertaining for a while, but getting old by 2:00 AM.
One of the few advantages to being an older guy on a camping trip is the increase in opportunities for stargazing throughout the night. We encountered nothing as spectacular as aurora borealis, but the clarity of the star formations and our milky way galaxy was always impressive. We benefitted in this respect by scheduling our trip during a new moon, although I'm sure we would have also enjoyed a full moon rippling across a lake toward our campsite.
Day 4. Layover at Wood Lake CG; Explore Siskiwit Lake.
The stars had been out at 3:00 AM (and so was I), but it was overcast again by our 6:00 wakeup. Tom provided pancake mix, we enhanced it with cinnamon & brown sugar flavor instant oatmeal, and added a squeeze of strawberry jelly for a welcome change of pace at breakfast. The overcast sky diffused the light and lingering fog over the islands provided some nice subjects for photographs from a high rock behind our campsite. Dew-laden spider webs also caught our attention
This was planned as a portage-free day with a second night in the same campsite, with a focus on paddling Siskiwit Lake, weather permitting. If necessary, it could have served as a catch-up day for any delays. With only small waves, and the fog lifting, we packed lunch and essential gear aboard the kayaks and headed west. Our first target was Ryan Island, where we set foot on the "largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest (surface area) freshwater lake in the world."
We had traded "Good morning!" wishes with the loon-watching naturalists as they paddled by during our breakfast. We discovered them on the west end of Ryan Island, binoculars and spotting scopes in use, trying to identify nesting pairs and their nest sites. The loon population is tenuous on IR. Populations on some interior lakes are stable, others have decreasing or no current nesting pairs.
With the wind picking up out of the west, we set a compass course southeast from Ryan, which brought us past Eagle Nest Island to Siskiwit Falls, a small stream through which Siskiwit Lake drains into Lake Superior.
We hiked a short distance over to Superior, sat on the dock at Malone Bay, where we enjoyed lunch and wished we could sing like Otis Redding. Our lunches consisted of a variety of items, including tuna foil packs, slim jims, pilot bread, cheese sticks, snack bars, dried fruit, nuts, and an excess of peanut butter. Four jars of peanut butter, even allowing for a variety of creamy, crunchy, mixed with jelly or mixed with honey, is too much for 3 guys to eat in less than a week. That's definitely one item we can reduce for the next trip.
The wind had increased out of the west on our way from Ryan to Malone, and picked up some more as we headed back toward the east end of Siskiwit. We needed to track northeast to stay clear of the shore, but the wind was coming from due west, meaning that we had to deal with quartering following seas. Maintaining progress, quartering away from the shore, and preventing broaching as the kayaks dropped into the troughs kept us on our toes, and we were happy to complete the 4 miles back to camp.
We still had plenty of daylight, so while Tom took aim at the wily fish, Joe and I paddled to some nearby islands in search of blueberries. We quickly located our quarry, and while they were smaller than usual, they had excellent flavor. An hour or more of climbing around on hands and knees yielded about a quart and we headed back to camp.
Tom and I shared 10 years of experience as adult leaders with Boy Scout Troop 560, so Joe provided a fresh audience for our many stories. Joe was also a quick student of useful knots, including the sheet bend, tautline hitch, two half-hitches, clove hitch, and bowline, but he took a special interest in the daisy chain, a somewhat decorative way to shorten and store a line. After every excess piece of line in camp, including our kayak bow lines, had been daisy-chained, we started referring to ourselves as the Daisy Chain Gang.
Neither Siskiwit nor Wood Lake would give up a fish, so we heated water and sat down to another Mountain House dinner. We may have preferred some flavors more than others, but we thought all of the meals were very good. Does that say more about MH quality, our level of hunger, or our lack of sophisticated palate?
Day 5. Wood Lake to Lake Whittlesey Campground.
We slept in until 6:30, possibly anticipating and recharging for a return to portaging. Breakfast was pancake batter mixed with cinnamon and apple oatmeal, poured in the pan and further enhanced with a handful of fresh blueberries in each pancake. Delicious!
Joe was initially responsible for coffee brewing, but ended up doing most of the cooking for pancakes and fish. Heating water and the preparation of Mountain House meals quickly became an assembly line procedure performed by two of us for the crew-open envelopes, remove drier packets, add prescribed water, stir, reseal, time, reopen, stir and eat. We had two stoves, but did most of the cooking on the quieter of the two. All of our cooking was on gas stoves; we never encountered a fire ring until our last evening on IR. We took over 3 quarts of fuel, but only consumed a little over 1 quart.
A quick 1 mile paddle and by 8:00 AM we were at the .6 mile portage to Lake Whittlesey. It proved to be gently rolling, only one set of planks, certainly didn't live up to the horror story we had heard, but we did see plenty of sawdust, evidence that downed trees had been recently cleared.
Another 1 mile paddle and we were at the Lake Whittlesey Campground midway along the lake's north shore. It had been an easy portage, easy paddle, and we were at our new home by 10:30, so we were slightly surprised when we realized that the couple who had a nearby campsite completely set up, and were already back on the lake fishing, had also spent the previous night at Wood Lake. The campsite was nice, with tents in the shade, a smooth rock outcropping for lounging and viewing the lake both east and west. The launch was decent but a bit steep, which would later cause a premature launch of Joe's kayak . . . without Joe.
After lunch, Tom and Joe were anxious to do some serious fishing up and down the length of this long and narrow lake. Tom was our fishing expert (including cleaning boney northern pike), a veteran of many fishing trips to northern Minnesota and Canada, but Whittlesey challenged his skills. After an afternoon of casting at every promising ledge, dropoff, and underwater structure without results, he switched to a tactic of fishing where the fish were not supposed to be. We enjoyed 2 northern and a walleye for supper.
I spent most of the afternoon paddling the lake, learning about my
|Tom Sabotta |
Olympus waterproof camera, getting photos of twisted cedars, bleached driftwood, rock outcroppings, and a couple of frustrated fishermen. I learned as much about the camera during our IR trip as over the previous year. Focus applies to photographers as well as cameras. The Stylus Tough 8010 has plenty of functions, features, and capabilities, but a voracious appetite for batteries. I could have consumed 2 of the rechargeable batteries every day!
We were in the tents by 9:00, sleeping well on the coolest night of our trip, awakened a couple of times by what we believed to be wolves howling in the distance.
Day 6. Lake Whittlesey to Chippewa Harbor Campground.
We were now in an easy routine of reveille by 6:30, breakfast of MH Eggs & Bacon or oatmeal (plus a big spoonful of peanut butter & jelly), break camp, load the kayaks, and paddle to the next portage. In this case it was a 2.5 mile paddle, but we were still at the .6 mile portage to Chippewa Harbor just shortly after 8:00. Our final portage was rated medium in overall challenge, but was unique in that it included no planks over marshy sections, replacing them with logs laid side-by-side perpendicular to the trail.
We quickly reloaded our kayaks and paddled the 2 miles to the dock and Chippewa Campground, anxious to secure a shelter for our last night on IR. Chippewa CG is rated very highly for convenience and scenic views, and is on both the portaging and hiking trails, so we were concerned about competition for the 4 available shelters. We were quite surprised to find ourselves alone at the campground when we arrived . . . all afternoon . . . all evening . . . and still alone when the Voyageur II picked us up.
We picked the shelter with the most spectacular view out over the harbor, carried our gear up and placed it in the shelter. It was a nice change to skip the rigging of a tarp and tents. We enjoyed lunch in the sunshine, sitting at a real picnic table on the dock, sharing our miscellaneous leftovers, each of us trying to give away some peanut butter.
Tom and Joe grabbed their poles and hiked over to Lake Mason to tempt its fish, but learned that it is difficult to fish from the brushy shorelines of the internal lakes. I paddled out the mouth of Chippewa Harbor to take some photos and claim that I had briefly paddled in the swells of Lake Superior, then explored the shoreline of the harbor, including the bleached bones of the "Beaver," a 1930's tourist boat.
A sailboat raised anchor and sailed into Superior, a couple of powerboats toured the harbor and departed, a cabin cruiser from Michigan docked for the night, and a ranger docked for a couple of hours, checking the campground and providing us with an opportunity for Q & A. In answer to one of his questions, Tom and Joe did possess the proper one-day Michigan fishing licenses for the harbor (license required on water directly connected to Superior, not for inland lakes).
Tom insisted on building a fire in the grill by our shelter "because we can." Shelters, grills, and fire rings are only available at campgrounds along the IR shoreline. Since we had opted to immediately portage out of McCargoe Cove, Chippewa was our only opportunity to enjoy these "luxuries."
Clouds passed over, delivering a few raindrops, and the sky cleared. We had completed our route as planned, survived the portages without injury, and were at the point of rendezvous with the Voyageur II; relaxation was now our focus. An afternoon swim at the dock was particularly refreshing due to the proximity to Lake Superior's always-cold water. We did some preliminary organizing of items to have in our daybags. Our trail clothes were rinsed and drying, clean clothes were ready for the next day's return to close quarters on the Voyageur II. We enjoyed a late afternoon coffee break. We even shaved!
Our last dinner was a sharing of Mountain House flavors and Joe's Mexican entrée, along with a celebratory spoonful of peanut butter and jelly. When Tom and Joe headed to the shelter, I couldn't resist trading a half hour of sleep for sitting on the warm rock, soaking up a final memory as the light faded in the west and the details of the trees blurred to dark shadows.
Day 7. Chippewa Harbor to Grand Portage, & Home to Cedar Rapids.
Our last breakfast was quick and easy (including coffee & Dramamine), packing was simple, and we staged our boats and gear on the dock well before the 9:00 AM pickup time. The Voyageur II did not appear until 9:10, which allowed us time to joke about spending two more days at Chippewa with our few remaining Mountain House packs and a lot of peanut butter.
"The Lady" (Lake Superior) was well-behaved as we cleared Chippewa Harbor and headed west along the south shore of IR, trying to follow along on our map, identifying our lunch dock at Malone Bay, and passing through somewhat-sheltered Siskiwit Bay. The wind and waves raised a bit more spray as we rounded the western end of IR, but were less evident as we passed between several islands back into Washington Harbor to the dock at Windigo.
I hustled up to the ranger office to "log out," pleased to report that all had gone well, and we had camped exactly according to our original plan. Tom, Joe, and I met for a quick cold sandwich lunch on the general store patio. It was apparently not quick enough, as the first mate sternly informed us that we were late returning to the Voyageur II. I chuckled to myself, thinking how much more polite his comments were than what I would have heard for a similar offense while I was a member of our US Navy.
As we cleared Washington Harbor and headed into open Lake Superior, it was evident that the wind had continued to build, the swells were rising, and the Dramamine was probably a good investment. We passed part of the time napping on top of the vibrating engine covers, but it was the last few hours of our adventure, so certainly worth hanging onto the bow rail and absorbing a couple of refreshing waves.
We arrived in Grand Portage Harbor about 3:00 PM. Tom retrieved his truck from the parking lot while Joe and I moved our boats and gear from the dock to a staging point. The gear was quickly loaded and the boats securely strapped to our Malone J Racks.
We had wondered whether we would need showers at this point, or an overnight rest, but neither seemed necessary, so we opted to hit the road and see how things progressed. We enjoyed views of Lake Superior as we drove along the north shore, and stopped for supper in downtown Duluth. All those people and all that activity was quite a change from the solitude of our week on Isle Royale. We fueled up and pushed on, guessing titles, artists, or lyrics to music on the Sirius Radio 60's channel. By the time we hit the Iowa border, it was clear we would not be stopping and would arrive in Cedar Rapids about 2:00 in the morning.
Our adventure ended quietly, in the middle of the night, handshakes all around. The next day, the boats and gear were unloaded, taken home, cleaned and organized, just in case another adventure idea were to strike. A couple of days later, we shared another gathering with our spouses, along with photos, stories, and expressions of appreciation for each other. By all measures, it had been a great adventure.
Summary and Resources:
Tom, Joe, and I would probably each offer some unique perspective and advice, but overall, our visit to Isle Royale was challenging but enjoyable. Our personalities meshed, our kayaks and skills matched our itinerary, 6 days on IR left us satisfied, but still interested. We ate well, had good weather, and suffered no injuries. We would admit to packing too much weight, although we have not been able to identify ways to each eliminate 20 lb. of gear (we could reduce fuel and peanut butter). For anyone considering an adventure on Isle Royale, here are some useful resources:
Guidebook "Isle Royale National Park, Food Trails & Water Routes," 4th edition, Jim DuFresne, excellent resource for understanding the island's history, how to get there, and all the options for adventure on the island; available in many paddling stores, online bookstores, etc; we purchased autographed copies at Canoecopia.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map of Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, USA; # 240, waterproof and tear resistant, gps compatible; available in many paddling stores, online bookstores, etc.
Isle Royale Forums; free registration, very useful exchange of trip reports, info on paddling, campsites, fishing, transportation, trail conditions, gear, food, and real-time weather; please review the postings before asking redundant questions. http://isleroyaleforums.com/.
"The Greenstone," newspaper-format publication, issued annually, contains updates on IR park rules, trails, portages, campground facilities, fishing restrictions, general safety; available in hard or soft copy. http://www.nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=283293.
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