The Big Island on the Big Lake
by Mike Ostroushko
Isle Royal National Park seemed the most fitting place to enjoy a final summer adventure for the year between myself and my friend Danny. We spent this past spring and summer working fairly close to the Big Island, at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
At first we were disappointed that, due to a full boat and our own procrastination, our trip had to be cut short a couple days. We quickly forgot our blunder, however, as we approached our departure date and read the weather was to be perfect: 60s and sunny throughout our trip. Just days before we would be backpacking the very isolated island, we read about a recent solar flare that was to trigger a strong aurora borealis (northern lights) display right above Grand Marais and Isle Royal for a number of days. I had high hopes that we might enjoy clear nights sleeping without a rain fly, leaving our tent open to the grandeur of a beautiful painted sky. Though our trip missed an incredible display of auroras by a single day, we still felt this was a grand omen for a great trip to come.
Slightly over-packed and ready, our adventure began as we awoke Saturday and set off on an early foggy morning drive north, toward Grand Portage’s Voyageur II, which was to be our vessel to Isle Royal. Naturally, Danny and I were the last to be called onto the full boat, so we immediately made our way to the most spacious area remaining–the bow. We figured that as long as we couldn’t easily nap, we might as well ride the smooth waters like a scene out of the movie Titanic. The twin-diesel Voyageur II provided us a very enjoyable ride to Washington Harbor, with many kind and like-minded adventurers to chat with.
The calm seas allowed an early arrival onto the shores of Michigan’s Isle Royal. A very informative park ranger greeted us on the dock and told us of the nearly 1,700 moose making the island their home and were already beginning their rut. She told us of the thieving foxes that roam the island, and the two remaining wolves. Our anticipation to get on trail kept growing as we listened and proceeded to Windigo to discuss our route and purchase our permits. It was now 10:00 a.m. central time (we intentionally ignored the shift to eastern time zone to avoid confusion) and we were officially on the Greenstone Ridge trail.
We knew that day one on the trail would be the toughest of the three trail days. We were to hike from Windigo on the far western side of the big island, to the far more remote and isolated Hatchet Lake campground, over 17 miles east. In my experience backpacking, the first few miles had always been the toughest as I would get my pack comfortably situated and as my legs, hips, and back get used to carrying an extra 35 pounds. This trip was no different.
The beginning of the Greenstone Ridge going east from Windigo began with two to three miles of constant, tiring elevation gain through beautifully open white birch forests intermingled with a few black spruce and maples. The bright fall colors in the sunnier areas were already beginning to show vibrant bright reds, oranges, and yellows.
Our first break to replenish ourselves was around the Island Mine turnoff, about four and a half miles from Windigo. One of the many downed old white pines in the area made a perfect place to drop pack, sit, and rest. This was a majestic open forested area carpeted in mosses, lichens, and fungi of extraordinary variety. I’m no mycologist but mushrooms have always greatly fascinated me, so here my inner-child took over as I began searching for and investigating the nearby rotting logs and moss for the next amazing mycological photo.
Energy now restored and bodies rested, we began our next push toward Hatchet Lake, about 13.5 miles away. As I tires on the trail and pushed myself to keep a pace in an effort to arrive to camp with some sunlight, everything became a little more monotonous and robotic-like. My legs and feet began numbing and feeling more like tools than living appendages and my mind became fixated on the trail in front of me. Before I knew it, we were standing atop Mount Desor looking over beautiful Lake Desor.
After a short break and with seven miles to go on day one, we continued on the Greenstone toward our next resting spot, Ishpeming Point and fire tower. The Greenstone Ridge between Lake Desor and Ishpeming provided some good swampy moose habitat on our right, a couple vistas, and a surprisingly open forest most the way.
The rocky outcrop at the very beginning of Ishpeming Trail was to be our final drop-pack resting spot before our last push to Hatchet Lake. Danny and I were amazed by the forest between the fire tower and Hatchet. It was a coating of young white birch oddly intermingled with large old growth birch that seemed to joyfully energize me all the way to Hatchet.
We arrived at Hatchet Lake around 6:00 p.m., dropped our packs, took our boots off, and hastily began filtering and boiling water and making camp so we could eat a hot meal (mine was a delicious Mushroom Stroganoff, produced locally by Camp Chow). We conversed a bit and then headed into the tent for an early night’s sleep.
Webmaster’s Note: We’ll be sharing more of Mike and Danny’s Isle Royale adventure in our next blog post.