ISLE ROYALE, MI

LIFE LIST

Backpacker - - Contents - By Amy S. Eck­ert

Thru-hike the Lower 48’s least-vis­ited na­tional park.

THE MORN­ING SUN

fills our tent with light, and the warm rays have never been more wel­come. Yes­ter­day, our first full day of hik­ing, was a rough one. The rain fell in side­ways sheets, nearly drown­ing our long-awaited end-to-end hike of Isle Royale, the least-vis­ited na­tional park in the con­tigu­ous United States.

One foot in front of the other, my hus­band Bruce and I had marched rather than hiked, our faces low­ered away from the del­uge. The wa­ter pooled in muddy moose prints, ev­i­dence of the is­land’s largest res­i­dents. Up­ended thim­ble­ber­ries, knocked free by the tor­rent, scat­tered across the trail, fat and full of wa­ter like tiny, red Solo cups.

The 43-mile Green­stone Ridge Trail fol­lows the spine of Isle Royale, the largest in a 450-is­land ar­chi­pel­ago com­pris­ing the na­tional park of the same name in north­ern Lake Su­pe­rior. Late sum­mer prom­ises the best con­di­tions—mild temps, no black­flies— so we had aimed for an Au­gust get­away.

It was a long time com­ing. From when we were kids grow­ing up in the Mid­west, Isle Royale had loomed in our minds. Ac­ces­si­ble only by ferry or sea­plane, it of­fers Alaska­like soli­tude in the Lower 48 and a cer­tain badge of honor for Mid­west­ern­ers—the sat­is­fac­tion that comes with travers­ing one of the re­gion’s re­motest trails. We weren’t about to turn around just be­cause the weather wasn’t per­fect.

Af­ter re­fus­ing to let the rain dampen more than our boots, we’re re­warded with day-two sun­shine. We pack our gear in a prim­i­tive camp­ground sur­rounded by a thicket so dense it seems poised to re­claim our site as soon as we va­cate it. Then we re­ceive some Mid­west­ern, neigh­borly ad­vice from back­pack­ers hik­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion: East Chick­en­bone camp­ground is mud­dier than West, and if we make it to Three Mile, we should nab a camp­site on the Lake Su­pe­rior beach.

The Green­stone Ridge Trail leads us away, over basalt lay­ers that rise and fall like ac­cor­dion folds. We wade east through thigh-high ferns still wet with yes­ter­day’s rain, then power up thou­sand-foot moun­tains be­neath a blue sky that peeks at us from be­tween gnarled pines. As we walk, we look for the rus­tle of moose in the bal­sam firs and, as sun­light fades, we lis­ten for their last preda­tors: gray wolves.

With warmer wa­ter tem­per­a­tures, the Lake Su­pe­rior ice bridge rarely forms any­more, so wolves can no longer cross from the main­land. Isle Royale’s pack of nearly 30 an­i­mals dropped to two by 2018, and the moose pop­u­la­tion has seen a cor­re­spond­ing in­crease. An es­ti­mated 1,500 of the un­gu­lates oc­cupy the is­land, a num­ber that has grown steadily in the last decade and could dou­ble in the next five years if noth­ing changes. The Na­tional Park Ser­vice re­cently an­nounced a con­tro­ver­sial plan to re­store a vi­able wolf pop­u­la­tion, start­ing as soon as next month. It’s a com­pli­cated is­sue—one that’s hard to ig­nore as we hike through the unique habi­tat.

By the mid­dle of day three, we reach the

open sum­mit of 1,200-foot Mt. Siski­wit, where we eat lunch on sun-warmed rocks that over­look Isle Royale’s un­du­lat­ing pine woods and the steely wa­ters of Lake Su­pe­rior. It’s the tran­si­tion point of the hike; af­ter, on Isle Royale’s lee­ward side, it seems like a dif­fer­ent trail. Firs twisted and dwarfed by the is­land’s pun­ish­ing winds yield to stands of tow­er­ing birch and su­gar maple. The fern-lined trail morphs into a rib­bon of scree snaking through hip-high grasses and pur­ple asters.

Mt. Ojib­way marks the fi­nal peak on our route, and from atop its fire tower we spy Rock Har­bor Light­house and the end of the trail. We de­scend to the har­bor and, iron­i­cally, our first moose sight­ing. We had to hike 43 miles to see it—and it’s worth it.

DO IT

Thru-hike the Green­stone Ridge Trail from west to east to en­joy your fi­nal night at Rock Har­bor Lodge. (There is no ac­com­mo­da­tion at Windigo, the trail’s west­ern ter­mi­nus.) Come pre­pared to fil­ter and carry each day’s wa­ter. Camp­sites are first-come, first­serve, and large enough to share. FERRY Book a ferry from Grand Portage (grand-isle-royale .com, starts at $71 one-way), Cop­per Har­bor (isleroyale.com, $62), or Houghton (nps.gov/ isro, $55). SEA­PLANE Fly from Houghton to Windigo or Rock Har­bor (isleroyale­sea­planes .com, $220). PER­MIT En­trance fees re­quired ($7/per­son per day or $80 an­nual pass); pay in ad­vance at pay.gov or ob­tain from Rock Har­bor or Windigo ranger sta­tions. Free back­coun­try camp­ing per­mits are re­quired. SEA­SON June to Oc­to­ber CON­TACT nps.gov/isro

Sa­vor sun­rise from the Mt. Ojib­way fire tower on the west side of Isle Royale.

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