Tuesday, 12 September 2023, Isle Royale NP
So nice to wake up to the sound of waves breaking on the rocks below my balcony. A sound that encourages you to take it easy, to gently slide into the day.
By the time I'd made reservations, these two nights were the only dates available at the lodge. I didn't know they were the last two days of this season for Isle Royale. Yesterday, I joined the year's final ranger tour. After tonight, the Lodge shuts down for the season, along with the restaurant and the grill. An atmosphere of farewell floated in the air.
The park itself would not officially close until Nov 1. However, anyone visiting from here on had to be self-sufficient, to bring all food and camping equipment they needed. Ferries and seaplanes would still arrive intermittently this month, but I could see no scheduled transportation for all of October.
But I still had another day to enjoy the park! After breakfast, I headed for the trail heading southwest, again paralleling the ridges of the isle. My path took me past the Visitor Center, so I had to stop and say, "Good morning!" to Kylie Not-my-sister.
She grinned and asked, "Did you take the boat to Hidden Lake and then hike to Lookout Louise yesterday? How was it?"
I shook my head and said, "They cancelled the tour. The boat would hit open water, and the captain worried about the waves. This afternoon I'll try for the boat ride out to Rock Harbor Light, if the waves calm down." Take what the island gives....
The Rock Harbor Trail runs about two miles, staying closer to the water than the
Stoll trail, affording wonderful views of the lake and other islets to the east.
After hiking fifteen minutes, I met two women backpackers heading for Rock Harbor. They asked me, "How much further is it?" I talked with them for a minute, but they looked eager to finish their six-day outing, so I moved on.
Five minutes later, I reached three women backpackers taking a break enroute to the harbor; one had dropped her pack for relief. They'd been out for nine days, but only went out 11 miles or so. "We're slow," one of them admitted. "We'll stay at a campsite a few days and take day hikes." None of us seemed in a rush to move on, so I chatted for a few minutes before my feet got restless again.
Another fifteen minutes on, and here comes a single woman backpacker (the only one I met younger than my generation). She eagerly struck up a conversation. "I've been out seven days, but every few days I'd catch a boat to a different location. This is my first solo backpacking trip, and I'm loving it!" She mentioned seeing three moose, including a moose cow and calf waking her up as they splashed in a beaver pond at 4:00 one morning. I told her the only wildlife I've seen was a black garter snake. "Oh, I saw a garter snake too. It was turquoise!"
Guess who I came across fifteen minutes further on? This solo woman backpacker was finishing a five-day outing. "Well, four actually, since my ferry ride over got cancelled to cost me a day." She showed no interest in chatting, so I kept moving.
I followed the trail to the cutoff for Suzy's Cave.
Not a regular cave, but a sea arch that had been carved out when the lake's water level had been higher. Now the 'cave' sat 50' higher than the shoreline. I followed the trail up to the low ridge and peered inside, but it held no interest.
Continuing on the cutoff took me over to the Tobin Harbor Trail, heading back home. The Tobin inlet is much more sheltered than Rock Harbor, with the trail mostly in the trees. I quickly met two more backpackers, this time a couple just starting their outing. "We saw a moose at the start of this trail," they told me. "Be sure to look to see if it's still there when you get back." (No, it wasn't.)
The lusher growth on this side encouraged me to slow my pace,
to look at the flora about me. Might this be a type of fruticose lichen?
Who knows. I also saw the merest beginnings of fall foliage, soon to bloom in a glory of color few people will see.
Shafts of sunlight began breaking through the ominous clouds, offering hope for a better afternoon.
After lunch, the Lodge Ladies told me that The Sandy (the tour boat owned by the lodge) would indeed take guests to the Rock Harbor light and the Wolf-Moose Institute (popularly called the Mooseum). The boat had seats for up to 20 passengers; our tour had a dozen on board, including the Trio of female backpackers I'd met earlier.
The Sandy took us down the channel, the island mainland to our right, a chain of barrier islands to our left separating us from the wide-open lake. Twenty minutes took us to the Middle Islands Passage, the gap hosting Rock Harbor light.
The boat docked at the Edisen Fishery, an historic fish camp still operating under NPS control. A volunteer working there introduced us to the camp, pointing out the buildings, then gave us directions to the lighthouse and the Mooseum.
I headed for the lighthouse first, followed by the Trio. The park had created a museum inside the facility, recounting the ten shipwrecks that'd happened around the isle. It talked about the challenge that experienced sea captains faced, guiding boats on Lake Superior. Here, winds more than tides affected the waves. Those waves have shorter wavelengths, giving any boat less time to react.
The exhibits illustrated the dangers of travel here. After perusing them, I wandered around outside, looking for a winning photo of the lighthouse, finally taking one photo-bombed by the Trio.
They apologized, but I deflected, preferring a pic with human interest.
We then followed the trail toward the Mooseum, site of the world's longest unbroken study (since 1958) of any predator-prey ecology in the world. The Trio stopped for pictures along the way, so I plowed along, soon meeting other boat passengers returning. "Did you see the moose just off the trail? It was back a little ways." Would the island finally give me a moose sighting? I followed the other hikers back toward our boat, but they couldn't recall where it was. Thus, when the Trio caught up to me, I turned and followed them to the Mooseum.
Rolf and Candy Petersen were on-site, working away. They cheerfully greeted us as they moved about, eager to share their work. When they asked the Trio where they hailed from, their answer caught my attention: Ft. Collins, CO, where I went to college. Small world!
Their 'front yard' contained a large collection of moose bones, organized and categorized. As I watched, Candy grabbed a moose skull and a saw, sat down, and started sawing. "I do the unskilled labor here," she joked. "Gotta extract a tooth."
Rolf invited us to check out the back yard, the largest collection of moose skulls and antlers I could imagine.
"We study them to extract information like DNA, and to find out what diseases they have in the herd. What's exciting is new techniques come up all the time, and we can go back and learn even more."
They stay at the off-the-grid camp - they have a computer, but no indoor plumbing! - half of each year, studying the wolf-moose connection. (They live in the Bangsund Cabin, a well-preserved dwelling one hundred years old.)
Rolf had been Chief Biologist in the park, but retired (in word only) in 2006. He never stopped working, and is the recognized expert in the field. He and Candy have spent fifty years here, raising their family, advancing the science.
As the ladies peppered Rolf with questions, I chatted with Candy about five decades dedicated to the studies. "It's all about finding a purpose in life," she claimed. "A purpose more important than the mindless accumulation of money."
She talked about how people needed to understand what drives them. "I once talked to a group of students graduating with Architectural Engineering degrees. I asked them, 'How many of you are truly excited to puruse a career in Architectural Engineeing?' Only two of them raised their hands. The rest gave shaky answers, or just sort of drifted into the field."
A low-key future spent playing with grandkids and rehashing infirmities was not in her cards. "Why should I stop doing what I love? I'd like to think I'm still making a difference." She shook her head, looking rueful. "I have a group of friends that goes way back. We'll get together on zoom calls. They no longer work. Seems like anymore the calls start with an organ recital: 'My heartburns have been really bad lately.' 'I really need a hip replacement.' 'My arthritis makes everything hard.'"
The theme of 'giving back' wove through her thoughts. "We give back - to people, to science. The animals here are vulnerable - the best thing we can do for wolves and wilderness is to help people get along with each other." She looked wistful as she continued. "If people only cared enough to change their lives. Someday we'll all find our true purpose in life."
I hated to cut our conversation short, but our boat would leave soon. The Trio and I wandered back, vainly looking for the moose that had evaded us. Another connection: on the hike, one of the Trio mentioned how she had also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro years before. At the dock, I had time to look into the different preserved buildings in the fish camp.
On the boat ride back, the captain started with a close run past the lighthouse, allowing us another shot at pictures.
A few minutes later, the first mate pointed out a pair of bald eagles on a rock to the starboard.
As we neared the Rock Harbor dock, I decided I'd like to cap my stay here with the sunset cruise - last boat ride of the season! - at 7:30. Unfortunately, the Lodge Ladies (who sold the tickets) would lock up the office just before we returned. The first mate/partner of the captain took note of my plight, telling me, "They're around here somewhere. I'll find them. Will you be in line, getting dinner at the grill?"
Off she went. Sure enough, one of the Lodge Ladies picked me out of the line minutes later. She took my credit card, left, and came back as I still waited in line. "You're all set!" Such service..
Decent evening for a cruise - cool but not cold, light breeze. Half of the customers boarded as a group, and they regularly swapped seats throughout the trip. At one point, a young woman in the group plops down next to me to take a picture from my side of the boat. "Hi, I'm Sam!"
Sunset colors develop slowly as we slip northeast in open waters,
with a large clould bank blocking rays except at the horizon. As we leave the protection of barrier islands, the waves grow larger with the boat occasionally bouncing over them, sometimes listing a bit.
"The Sandy belongs to the lodge," the first mate tells us, "but it won't winter over on the island. Tomorrow, we'll sail it to Houghton. That's an 80 mile cruise, all on open water. We have to watch the forecast to be sure we can handle the waves. Luckily, tomorrow looks calm, so we'll push off early.
"Will the seas be as rough as tonight?" someone asked as the boat lurched over another wave.
"No. If the seas were this heavy, we'd have to put it off."
As the sun slowly sank below the horizon, we cleared Scoville Point. Now we could look to the west, see the orb setting over the Canadian mainland. A bright red glow grew low in the sky, marking the passage of another day,
bringing an end to another season in the least-visited park in the lower 48 states..
Tomorrow will be time for goodbyes.
Wednesday morning, 13 September 2023, Isle Royale NP
I've never closed down a resort before.
The Rock Harbor Lodge will see no more guests for over seven months months. Boat tours and water taxis have ended. The restaurant has closed; the grill shuts its doors soon. Any visitors in the next several weeks will find no services.
I awoke to calm waters and a sunless sky. From my balcony, I saw no waves breaking against the rocks, just a gentle sloshing on the shore. Quiet.
At the grill, a fellow lodger caught me at the door. "Are you planning on ordering a breakfast burrito?" he asked. I nodded. "They're HUGE. My wife and I each ordered one, but we ended up splitting mine. Would you like our other one? It's still hot in the wrapper!" I know, I know - on Isle Royale, you take what the island gives you.
As I wandered away from the grill, I could see the activity at The Sandy.
One worker touted bags full of life jackets off the boat for winter storage. "I used to make that journey across the lake to Houghton," he told me. "It can be quite a ride over open water."
The Ranger III - the largest boat owned by the park service -
had docked at the pier, ready to take its passengers home. People stood by waiting to board, along with a few kayaks going back. What adventures had their owners lived?
I walked to the Visitor Center to say farewell to Kylie Not-my-sister. She asked how I liked the Mooseum, and what I thought of Rolf and Candy. "Amazing that they've been there over fifty years, raising their family there," she offered.
Back at my room, I showered and packed, leaving my bag on the bed. The Lodge Ladies had closed the office to run chores, so I settled on a bench to wait to check out. Soon a crowd - including the Lodge Ladies - assembled on the dock to bid farewell to The Sandy. Pictures were taken, group hugs all around, then the mooring lines got unwound and the boat slipped away with a final toot of its horn. A few minutes later, I watched it head off into the cloudy open waters.
Now I sit on the bench, overlooking the near-empty harbor. A few stragglers - including people on my seaplane - wander about, and workers buzz about on their ATVs, delivering luggage to the ferry pier or plane dock.
That feeling of closure - of finishing - mirrors the moods running through me as I approach the end of the challenge. I struggle with so many questions. What will come next? How will I fill my time? Have any adventures I've taken - any blogs I've written - had any lasting impact? or is this all only words in the wind?