ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARKhe concept was intriguing: Take the whole family away from it all. No phones, no CD players, cars, modems, pagers or newspapers for a week. We’d enforce our isolation by backpacking in remote Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. Once the ferry left the dock, there’d be no turning back.
It would be the four of us. My wife, Karen, and I were backpacking veterans. My stepchildren Aaron Lake, 16, and Ashley Lake, 12, had never carried anything on their backs heavier than schoolbooks.
So we asked them — what did they think?
“Yeah, sure,” said Aaron, never taking his eyes off the computer-generated aliens in front of him.
“Whatever,” said Ashley, rolling her eyes ever so slightly.
So it was settled.
The island is a solitude lover’s paradise, lying roughly 48 miles from the edge of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, accessible only by boat or seaplane. It’s among the nation’s smallest and least-visited national parks because of its location, drawing only about 15,000 visitors annually. It’s also the only national park that closes in winter, when snow and ice make it uninhabitable for all but the occasional researcher.
Isle Royale is perhaps best known for the extensive prey-predator studies of its moose and wolf populations. The research is unique because the island’s isolation makes it a virtually closed ecosystem in which external variables are almost nonexistent.
Most of the park’s visitors strap on backpacks and test their mettle against some of its 165 miles of rugged trails, sleeping in tents or primitive wooden shelters. But a growing number use canoes or kayaks to reach shoreline campgrounds. Many make grueling portages, alternately carrying their watercraft and paddling across inland lakes famous for voracious northern pike. Others opt to stay in cottages or lodge rooms operated by the National Park Service.
A few use private boats to dock at bays where overnight mooring is permitted. Our trip would be typical of the hiking crowd — days in the wilderness carrying only necessities. But unlike the male bonders, summer camp groups and couples that comprised most of the island’s hikers, ours was a family vacation.
This was worrisome, not only because the kids had never backpacked, but, well, there was this matter of proximity to one another.
What will happen, I wondered, when the four of us are forced to spend eight nights together in the same tent? No friends to call, no room doors to shut, no television to gloss over family tensions. Just four people stripped of urban distractions slogging up and down rocky trails with sleeping bags and a bunch of dehydrated food.
I shuddered. The answer was clearly one of two options: We will return filled with loathing for one another, or we will discover that we really do like one another.
The island will show us if we are the Brady Bunch or the Simpsons. The backcountry is not for novices. Few campsites allow fires, so lightweight stoves are a must. We’d have to filter or boil our water from Lake Superior or inland streams. Only basic first aid is available on the island, and that often can be days away.
That means several weeks of frenetic shopping prior to the trip, gathering supplies ranging from backpacks to insect repellent to dozens of foil pouches containing dehydrated foods.
As the departure date neared, the kids watched with detached curiosity as the pile of camping supplies grew, then returned quickly to their music and video games.
“This will be dinner when we’re backpacking,” I announced one day, holding up a packet of freeze-dried chicken and rice. “Really,” one grunted. “Mmmm hmmm,” the other absently responded.
Only one item truly caught their attention — storm-proof matches touted as being able to continue burning when immersed in water. We test them, and they pass.
A day’s drive to Houghton in the western Upper Peninsula and a restless night in a motel are followed by a seven-hour ferry ride to Rock Harbor, the arrival and departure point for most island visitors.
The boat trip is uneventful in calm seas. We have specifically taken the 165-foot Ranger III as opposed to the 81-foot Queen, because of the Queen’s nickname — the Barf Barge. Just to be sure, Karen downs two motion-sickness tablets, which leave her limp as a noodle until nearly sunset, proving the island cabin rental a wise selection for Night One.
Shortly after sunset, Tobin Harbor reverberates with the enchanting calls of loons. Only 14 hours removed from the mainland, we’re in a different world. The haunting loons are mesmerizing. “When you go home,” whispers an island veteran, “you’ll hear them in your dreams.” And I will. In the morning, we cinch up the packs and hit the trail. I have routed a dozen itineraries on the water-resistant topographical map and scrapped them all. How far can we hike in a day? Who will be the weak link? There’s no way of knowing.
Perhaps we can make Daisy Farm campground, seven miles distant. We do, with relative ease, stopping along the way to examine abandoned copper mines, naturally formed caves in rock-faced cliffs and assorted odd insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
One fear has vanished. Young legs consistently propel their owners ahead of their elders on the rocky, root-tangled trails. They can hack it. But on Day Two, the elders unexpectedly catch up. The youngsters appear around a bend, grinning like, well, little kids. Not 30 yards off the trail a bull moose munches contentedly on the understory, oblivious to his audience. For many moments we watch, scarcely breathing. This is National Geographic, and we are living it.
Life on the trail settles hikers into a natural rhythm unobscured by electric lights and self-imposed deadlines and schedules that have become our daily grind. When it’s dark, we sleep. When it’s light, we awaken. The day’s highlights are simple. A meal. A brave plunge into Lake Superior to erase the day’s sweat. The sunset. The moon.
Chores that might spark moaning in Farmington, Mich., are willingly undertaken beneath this canopy of green. Volunteerism unknown at home emerges — filtering the evening’s allotment of water, scrubbing pots and pans from mealtime and policing the campsite in order to fulfill the backcountry hiker’s creed: Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories.
Moments after sunset we hear it. We freeze. The howl of a wolf? We’ll never know for sure.
Incredibly, during our eight nights, our tents were never unfurled. Many campsites, and all of the six we called home for a night, have first-come, first-served shelters. It was not entirely by coincidence that choosing these shelters allowed us to enjoy pit toilets each night. Sites deeper in the backcountry have no such amenities, making tents, trowels and toilet paper part of the must-pack list.
Canoeists and kayakers occasionally appear on the trail, portaging their loads from lakes and harbors. “They’re crazy,” we tell ourselves as they grunt past, shouldering their transportation. And on we trek with 130 collective pounds strapped to our backs.
Although strained muscles, blisters and Ashley’s wasp sting have taken a toll, they haven’t slowed us down. Neither has the weather — unseasonably warm in the 80s during the day and in the 60s at night.
There are thousands of them. Tiny toads (maybe frogs, what do I know?) no bigger than marbles carpeting the trail to McCargoe Cove. For 200 yards we carefully pick our way through them as they scatter beneath our boots. Another National Geographic moment.
Meals are highly anticipated events — breakfasts of oatmeal, pancakes or dehydrated scrambled eggs; dinners of reconstituted pasta, chicken and rice or beef stroganoff.
Lunch is simple trail mix or energy bars.
It becomes readily apparent that food needs have been underestimated. We have enough food for all of our meals but not enough to ever feel full. We discuss it and shrug. After all, what can we do?
We make a game of savoring each morsel and making it last.
At home, complaints are loud and long whenever the cupboards are devoid of meals that can be instantly microwaved or poured directly from can to mouth. On this island, we cheer the discovery that we’ve packed a film canister filled with maple syrup. Life is good.
Tiny wild blueberries cling to vines snaking against the rocky sun-baked face of the Greenstone Ridge trail. In 30 minutes, we’ve filled a coffee pot with them. Next morning, we mix them in with breakfast. Almost every day we find another blueberry bounty and harvest our share.
We squabble some, bicker a little, but generally discover we’re the kind of people we’d choose if we had to be stranded on a deserted island with others. As we turn back toward Rock Harbor we acknowledge dual desires — we want to venture deeper into the island’s solitude, and at the same time are lured by the thought of soft beds and solid food.
I pull out Jim DuFresne’s definitive hiking and paddling guide, “Isle Royale National Park, Foot Trails and Water Routes,” and read the last page aloud:
“... you realize it’s not the moose or the walleye or even the incredible scenery that appealed to you but the simplicity of the island’s backcountry. To travel without a motor, stuff everything you need into a pack, to put away the watch. This is what nourishes you on Isle Royale. This is why you came.”
The butterfly lands and unfurls its curled tongue (Is it a tongue? What do I know?) to lick a sweaty forearm. The tongue feels tacky, wet and it lands on each of us in turn, tasting the saltiness. After many moments, we reluctantly continue down the trail, leaving this most affectionate creature behind.
We ease back toward real life on our last day with a breakfast from the Rock Harbor general store and the rental of a 14-foot aluminum boat with a 10-horsepower outboard motor.
The day is spent poking about the many little islands and rock outcroppings that shelter Rock Harbor from the open water of big Superior. We buzz down the harbor, viewing the stretches of shoreline where days earlier we had struggled on the loose rock under the weight of our packs.
We visit what passes for island tourist attractions — a restored fishing village, a lighthouse museum, a buoy marking a shipwreck that we can’t see from the surface.
Then we swim in the freezing waters and run to lie on the smooth boulders, almost too hot from hours of baking in the sun.
Early the next morning, we depart on the Ranger III, straining to see the trail where our trip had begun a week earlier. We speak of what we’ll do differently next time we visit, but we’re cut short.
“We’ll never be back here all together again,” Aaron bluntly announces. We sputter protest, but he’s almost certainly right.
Even so, for one week we proved we could do without modern necessities. That we weren’t too cool or too jaded to appreciate fluorescent green beetles or hummingbirds. And that we could do without phones, pagers, CDs, computers, fast food, cars and newspapers.
And we know for sure that, while we may not be the Brady Bunch, we’re not the Simpsons either.