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The Great Escape: Three tips to Visit Isle Royale National Park

An echoing horn sounded across the sliver of water leading us to Lake Superior’s open waters. We were gliding along a narrow vein from Houghton Michigan, beginning the six hour voyage to the island of Isle Royale National Park. Few have heard its name – yet our visit during peak season in August suggested otherwise. The Ranger III was swollen with excited passengers, their brightly colored outdoor gear contrasting with somber colors of the 1958 vessel.

Our first mistake was to eat no breakfast and bring no cash in our last-minute bustle to make the journey. All our food was stowed away in our backpacks below deck, and the peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches on board only accepted cash.

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A woman plays music over the mysterious waters of Lake Superior, from the Ranger III.

It wasn’t the first mistake we’d make over the next five days, so read on for three tips coupled with imagery from another magical park.

The tips below are ideal for backpackers, but the island does feature a rustic lodge for those who’d prefer to bring your own fluffy pillow from home. We wanted nothing more than that lodge by the end of our five days, especially after passing a couple who told us they’d enjoyed the previous rainy day playing cards, drinking red wine, and watching the rain from their window.

Yeah, we were in that rain.

Smiling despite the rain.
We actually really love rain, but 2 miles in it rather than 12.

TIP # 1

Plan ahead, very carefully.

Our trip was spontaneous. Sure, Isle Royale was next on our itinerary, but because of poor planning we found out there were only two ferry tickets left during the week we’d set aside for the journey. We wanted to take the park’s official ferry – the Ranger III – but even the other ferries were sold out. When I called the park, tickets were literally for the next day, not for the following weekend as we’d hoped. Those were all sold out.

So in less than 24 hours we scrambled to pack up from Voyageurs National Park and drove eight hours to Houghton, Michigan, stopping at Trailfitters in Duluth to stock up on some gear. We spent the night 6 minutes from the dock in a WalMart parking lot, which conveniently allowed us to stock up on food for the trip. You should have seen us frantically rearranging our packs in the parking lot at 7 AM, it was… cute.

893 square miles of wilderness bliss.
Isle Royale: 850 square miles of wilderness bliss.

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A small island on Lake Superior, hugging Isle Royale.

Planning = Seeing more of the Park

Although we purchased a trails illustrated topo map at the visitor’s center and had five hours to study on the ship, we could have used time researching online. The park is an open paradise for backpackers to choose a myriad of ways to cross it’s 40+ miles of terrain and camp in first-come-first-serve sites spaced an average of 8 miles apart. This official park map will show you how tough it is to plan a journey with so many destinations to consider.

There’s a ferry called the Voyageur II that can take you around different parts of the island so you don’t have to backpack 100% of the time. It’d be an ideal way to see more of the park if you don’t have days to backpack. Keep in mind, you have to plan this ahead of time, we’d recommend at least a month in advance during the summer.

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You can find these quaint docks dotted around the island, usually at the lakefront campsites.

Planning = Being Able to Drink Water

Luckily we read up on the park during our eight hour drive to the dock, so we did find out about the drinking water situation. You need a pretty hefty filter for Isle Royale to ward off tapeworm and other little guys who want to make you sick. That’s no fun. Check out recommendations here.

We’re all for spontaneous visits to places, except when you’re trapped on an island and have less flexibility to make quick changes. Still, our “Colombian Way” approach (i.e. improvise, let things happen) proved adventurous. There is something exciting about going blindly into a new situation and tackling challenges as they arise.

Planning = Great Hikes

All of the island is lovely with charms around every corner, but there are a few trails that stand out. Luckily we stumbled upon one without planning: Scoville Point Loop. It’s so remarkable, Backpacker.com listed it as 4 of the 100 best miles of trail in the national park system. Couldn’t agree more.

Andres repacking the water filter early one morning.
Andres repacking the water filter early one morning.

From the point of Scoville Loop Trail.
From the point of Scoville Loop Trail.
The rock formations are like a giant playground, watch your step!
The rock formations are like a giant playground, watch your step!

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Plan ahead, but don't worry about fruit in August. We ate so many thimbleberries - and it's totally legal.
Plan ahead, but don’t worry about fruit in August. We ate so many thimbleberries – and it’s totally legal.
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Charms of the Isle Royale forest.
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For some reason we imagined 5 sunny days like this one, day #1 when we arrived. The remaining four days were damp or downright pouring.

TIP # 2

Pack for Rain.

Rookie mistake. Somehow believing our luck from previous parks would continue – that it might only rain at night – we didn’t adequately pack for rain. Sure we had raincoats and “waterproof” boots, but when it started drizzling two days into our five day trek, I realized my backpack’s rain cover was enjoying dry time in our car on the mainland, and gravity meant water could fall into the tops of my boots.

As we sloshed along a slippery trail, I’ll never forget the cheery greeting from two other backpackers who looked like friendly GI Joe knock-offs. “Staying dry?” one asked, obviously dry himself in the miles of plastic covering every inch of his get-up. “Not at all!” I smiled, just a little bit jealous. It was a 12 mile day for us and we still had 5 miles to go over slick, rocky and rooty trail.

Andres found a creative way to dry his wet sleeping bag that night using our Optimus Crux stove to heat small sections of the bag. It only took about 30 minutes, and luckily the gas canister was full. Please don’t set your sleeping bag on fire.

While the damp chill warded off sleep that night, we daydreamed of sitting in a coffee shop with a big fire blazing in the fireplace, and hot cocoa warming our hearts.

lentils, rice and veggies cooked over the "sleeping bag drier" stove.
Thankful for lentils, rice and veggies cooked over the “sleeping bag drier” stove.

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Cooking in the rain.
The fox, who come right up to you, were also drenched.
This fox, who come right up to us, was also drenched and muddy.

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TIP # 3

Bring a camera.

There’s a magic word in the world of backpacking and it begins with a “W”. Weight. That is, don’t carry a lot of it. Yeah, my cans of Amy’s soup really broke that rule, along with our own “no-trash” initiative. (Again, plan better, although it was pretty delicious).

That said, Isle Royale is well worth the extra weight of a camera and good telephoto lens. As artists we’re biased, but there’s a lot of wildlife on this island and even mild hobby photographers might get a chance to shoot something spectacular.

We really, really, really wanted to catch a moose to inspire our next Centennial Poster. Honestly it was the only reason we backpacked an average of 14 miles per day (which is a lot for us).

By day #4 we already had photos of loons, squirrels, hares, and fox. The moose? What an evasive fellow!

We’ll let you know in our next post how that search ended up, but let’s just say the 1,300 moose on the island are very, very shy. You never know though, so have the camera ready.

Let us know if you have questions about Isle Royale – we could even recommend what to eat at the Rock Harbor restaurant – which is a moment of pure bliss after a few days of being wet, cold, soggy and hungry, but absolutely blown away by the beauty of the island. Be sure to check out the park’s website to learn more about its history and conservation efforts.

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