Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Backpacking Isle Royale in Lake Superior

Plan on 4-5 days to hike the 45 miles across Isle Royale in Lake Superior. And whatever you do, don't forget your rain gear.

Travels With My Wife


Signed copies of the expanded second edition, featuring more than 40 routes and 1,400 miles of cycling.


By Robert Downes

   Where were you on 9/11/2001?  That's the kind of date you never forget... especially when you've just completed a five-day hike across the wilderness of Isle Royale -- a place that seems like a lost world.
  Isle Royale is the green jewel of Lake Superior, lying just south of the Ontario coastline -- a mist-shrouded eco-system of old growth forest, abandoned copper mines, amygdaloid lakes, spongey bogs and rocky shores, running 45 miles long and populated by moose, wolves, and an annual invasion of backpackers for whom this island has the call of a spiritual quest.
  We had just reached Windigo Station after a five-day hike across the island.  My friends George Foster, Mike Henderson and I had trudged all day to the westernmost and most remote corner of the island with the conviction of a forced march through the bogs of moose country, following the tracks of a big bull for miles along the trail.  Sadly, we never caught up to the moose, but we made it to the campground and found an empty lean-to to bunk in for the night.  When you reach Windigo Station -- named for the Ojibwa creature that is both a cannibal and a vampire -- you've reached the tail end of the most remote wilderness park in the lower 48 states.
   After we dumped our gear, I wandered up to the ranger station and found a 4-by-5 card posted on the bulletin board, neatly typed with an apocalyptic message. To the best that I can recall, this is what it said:

"Dear Guests:
   This is to inform you that the United States is under attack.  A plane has been flown into the World Trade Center in New York. There has also been an attack on Washington DC with explosions and a fire reported on the Mall, including the reported bombing of the Food and Drug Administration and other buildings.  All air travel in the United States has been grounded, including the seaplane to Isle Royale.

          -- The National Park Service -- 9/11"

   Ha-ha, I thought.  This must be some disgruntled federal employee's idea of a joke...  hard to believe the anti-government mindset is countenanced by park rangers on a faraway place like Isle Royale...
   But then I was arrested by a singular notation on the card: the date, "9/11," had been added to the typed note in pencil.  What park ranger would bother dating a joke?  I wondered.  It began to sink in that perhaps something really was disturbingly wrong.
   Sure enough, a passing ranger confirmed the news that the United States was indeed under a catastrophic attack.  I wandered back to our lean-to in a daze, hailing a fellow backpacker here and there to share the news that two jetliners had been flown into the Twin Towers.  One guy looked at me like, oh-oh, how did this kook make it off the funny farm?  But soon enough, the news was telegraphed throughout the camp, along with the realization that some of us were stuck here on the island, out of food and with no way home.
  And of course, I began to worry about my wife and family, because what if the attacks were only the first wave?  What if they were followed up with biological or nerve gas attacks?
   That night, the rangers on Isle Royale bent the rules big-time to allow a campful of backpackers into their quarters to watch the footage of the jets slamming into the World Trade Center and then the cataclysmic collapse.  By this time, we had learned that some of the stuff on the bulletin board card had been erroneous -- part of the confusion engulfing the nation.
   Our seaplane ride off the island back to Hancock, Michigan was off the boards.  No one knew when the federal ban on flights would end -- even those including tiny planes making the 56-mile hop across Lake Superior back to civilization.  
   The other alternative was waiting a couple of days for a boat that circumnavigates the island, shuttling backpackers to the ferry terminal on the eastern coast. I considered catching a ride north to Canada, and hitchhiking the 700 miles home.

Isle Royale, wolves, backpacking, Planet Backpacker
A fresh wolf track on Isle Royale. Unfortunately, by 2015, only three wolves remained on the island, down from nine the year before.
The impact of 9/11 was so overwhelming that it almost obliterated the blissful thoughts I'd collected while hiking across this magnificent island.
   A week before, George, Mike and I had piled in my van and driven all night from Traverse City, Michigan, arriving some 400 miles later at the ferry dock in the Upper Peninsula.  Desperate for some sleep, I soon learned that my friends were champs in the snoring department, and there may even have been a fart or two floating around the van -- proof that a 'guy's only' outing is not always the hearty fun escapade it's made out to be...
   We caught the "Dramamine Queen" passenger ferry over the cold, green deep of Lake Superior from Hancock to Rock Harbor, the main visitors' center on the eastern end of Isle Royale.  Nearing the island, a ghostly mist slowly dissipated into vistas of basalt shores and dusky evergreens, as if you've arrived at the shores of mythical Avalon or Brigadoon.
   For the next few days, we rambled across the island, spending our nights at the Daisy Farm and McCargo Cove, where an old American warship had sheltered from the British during the War of 1812.  On our second day we trudged for six hours through a deluge that soaked us as completely as a leap into Lake Superior.  A subsequent epidemic of blisters prompted us to abandon any thought of hiking the grueling Minong Trail on the north side of the island -- said to be a rough scramble over an endless coastline of boulders.  Instead, we took the Greenstone Ridge Trail along the spine of the island, catching sight of the Sleeping Giant rock formation at the park of the same name in Canada to the north.
   Here and there we spotted a female moose browsing on the tender shoots of the forest -- there are 900 or so roaming the island.  But the only evidence of wolves was a fresh print found in the mud of the trail -- a big one -- and perhaps a faraway howl heard one night from the shelter of my tent.
   The wolves, estimated to number 19 in 2001 in several packs roaming the island, keep the moose population in check and are the subject of intense study by biologists who note radical ups and downs in their population.  That was just the case by 2012, when a census noted only a few remaining wolves and the need to consider introducing new animals from Canada.
   Although there are more than 20,000 visitors to Isle Royale each year, it's possible to hike all day and not see a soul on the 40-plus miles across the island.  The three of us wandered along for five days, lost in our thoughts and the sensations of deep nature -- saying little, treading softly, taking it all in.
   And then the trail ended, and with it came 9/11 and the realization that we were  stuck on the island.  Fortunately, the all-clear sounded a day-and-a-half later and a ridiculously small orange sea plane appeared out of the gray of the southern sky.  Somehow, we fit five big guys and our heavy packs on that plane, jammed in with the pilot, and lumbered up from the glass of the harbor, heading back to America, the war, and home.

   For more tales of travel adventure read 'Planet Backpacker' by Robert Downes.

Isle Royale, backpacking, Planet Backpacker.
 Five big backpackers crammed all of our gear on this tiny seaplane in the aftermath of 9/11 to fly back to Michigan.
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