Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Isle Royale Greenstone Ridge

For our third great trail adventure together my brother and I chose Isle Royale National Park. Our previous two adventures took us to Grand Canyon and Grand Teton National Park. This year personal schedules kept us a little closer to the midwest and so Isle Royale became the choice option. My brother had been wanting to finally make it up there and I had been there previously in 2016. I also happened to have a 50-mile trail race in Marquette, Michigan in mid-August and a window opened for us to hit Isle Royale the day after my race.

One thing anyone who attempts to plan a trip to Isle Royale will quickly discover is that one of the most difficult parts of this adventure is actually planning it. Just getting to the island is an adventure on its own and numerous logistics around one's calendar need be navigated. To get to the island one has to use one of the three boat ferries or use a seaplane. The ferries have very specific daily schedules of when they'll get you to the island and when they'll take you off. This is only the first step.

Sunset on Lake Desor

Next, you figure out your itinerary on the island and where your hiking will take you. If you just do some sort of out and back from one of the main island harbors (Rock Harbor or Windigo) it becomes a bit simpler. We chose to do the Greenstone Ridge which takes hikers from one end of the island to the next. This adds a major logistical hurdle. Now you have an extra layer of transportation to figure out on either the beginning or ending of your hike to get you back to wherever your car is ultimately parked.

Our plan was to ferry from Copper Harbor on the Queen IV up to Rock Harbor to get started. We would then take a seaplane to Windigo to start our hike on the west end of the island. We would hike the Greenstone Ridge back to Rock Harbor and then take the Queen IV back to our start. There is a ferry boat that circumnavigates the island (the Voyageur II) and that would also have accomplished our needs of getting to Windigo but it is very challenging to get its schedule to fit with your hiking schedule. We couldn't work out the times and so explored the seaplane option.

The Greenstone Ridge hike is listed at roughly 40-miles if you go from Windigo to Rock Harbor. There is a portion of the trail that extends further east onto the island but it becomes an out and back hike. It was good we didn't even give that consideration this year as the Horne Fire had started up almost two weeks before our arrival and it was burning in the very area the Greenstone Ridge continues into. The whole part of the island between Duncan Harbor and Tobin Harbor was closed due to the fire.

Our initial plan was to leave the Greenstone Ridge on the Mt. Franklin trail down to Threemile Camp and then finish on the Rock Harbor Trail. We were also prepared to keep our options open depending on how the hike went and what fresh ideas came to mind as we went. This would prove to be a good move as we did indeed change things up a bit before the end.

WHAT WE PACKED We attempted to keep things fairly light for this trip despite it being a bit easier than our previous trip to the Tetons where we went as ultralight as possible. My main motivation is that I was going to be running a 50-mile ultra the day before we started here and I did not know what condition my legs would be in. So lighter would be better. The weather forecasts were also leaning warm which meant we really wouldn't need to worry about much cold gear other than bringing a light rain jacket.

My goal in packing was to be able to use my REI Lookout 40 daypack again to make this trip go. This effort was a success. I had to strap our 2-person tent and my sleeping pad on the outside but was able to make everything else go on the inside. It was predominantly sleeping bag, clothes, food, water filter gear and a few small items that all made it in. The main thing I was unable to bring due to weight concerns (but in hindsight wish I had brought) was my camp chair. I really enjoy that thing and not just for sitting. Its always great to have a place to set things down without putting them in the dirt.

Here's a basic packlist:

  • Tent: REI Quarter Dome 2
  • Sleeping Bag: Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed 700/35
  • Pad: NeoAir XTherm Pad
  • Filter: Sawyer MicroSqueeze
  • Clothes:
    • Wore zip-off pants and a long-sleeve tech shirt
    • Packed 2nd pair zip-off shorts and a short-sleeve tech shirt for the tent, a light rain jacket, extra socks and underwear, and a buff to use as a mask during transportation.
  • Hydration: 3.0L bladder,
  • Emergency: SOL Emergency Bivvy, Matches, Swiss army knife, Garmin inReach Mini
  • Cooking: no cooking gear, just a spoon
  • A few more miscellaneous small items
As we did with our 2020 Tetons Trip we went without cooking gear. Honestly we were actually leaning towards bringing it this time but the stove fuel became the deciding factor. You aren't able to bring stove fuel on the seaplane and so you need to make arrangements at your destination (for us: Windigo) to have stove fuel to purchase or be available. This logistical hurdle coupled with the fact we were only looking at two evening meals made the hassle not worth it for us.

Sunday, August 22 Queen IV Ferry from Copper Harbor to Rock Harbor. Seaplane from Tobin Harbor to Windigo. Greenstone Ridge trail to Lake Desor South Campground.
Trailhead Elevation: 623 ft.
Distance: 12.58 mi.
Elevation Gain: 1,111 ft.
Start Time: 3:24pm
End Time: 7:54pm

Trip Report:
The Queen IV ferry ride started with a bit of excitement when we arrived at 7am for parking and the attendant informed us the sailing would be delayed two hours. Lake Superior was experiencing heavy winds and they had reason to believe things would simmer down later in the morning. The only time commit we had beyond the ferry ride was the 2:45pm seaplane flight at Rock Harbor. Our original arrival time of 11:30am was now 1:30pm and we had a tighter window. But it could still work!

Wildfire smoke from the Horne Fire

Thankfully, things did work out as we left on the Queen IV from Copper Harbor at 10am and things were looking good. Clear blue skies greeted us all through the lake and it was a beautiful day. The winds were whipping through and waves were up to five feet. We could feel a bit of seasickness by the halfway point.

The real notable highlight of the ferry over was in the last 20 miles when we could begin to see the wildfire smoke rising up from the east end of the Island. The Horne Fire had started almost two weeks prior and the smoke was blowing westward over what appeared to be most of the island. The Queen IV captain said it was the worst wildfire he had seen on Isle Royale in all 50 years of his sailing.

Upon arrival the backpackers stood on the docks with a ranger who gave us the tutorial of things to know while on the island. We may have had the most excitable ranger in the whole park service. She was quite nice but wow did she try to be entertaining to the extreme. The rangers gave us updates on trail conditions especially in regards to the current fire. The Horne Fire had closed trails in the Duncan Harbor area as well as the Stoll Trail to Scoville Point. The upper part of the Mt. Franklin trail was closed as well as the Greenstone Ridge east of Mt. Franklin. Thankfully none of the closures would affect out itinerary. In fact, the fire really didn't affect out trip at all and we didn't smell smoke anywhere outside of Rock Harbor. The only item of note we found was on Monday evening in Moskey Basin. We could see the occasional tiny bit of ash falling on our tent. Tiny little white flecks would show up. That was all we found.

While the ranger tutorial goes on the crew of the Queen IV unloads all the backpacks. David and I had a great system as things wrapped up. He went and grabbed our bags and I was able to head over to the ranger station and their white tables and be first in line for permits. The ranger took our itinerary and filled out our permit for us. David, with his parks pass was able to make everything free for us. Only took a few minutes and then we were free to head on our way. We topped off water supplies and hit the bathroom and then started our short hike. We had to head to the seaplane dock on the Tobin Harbor side and the walk was well-signed. It is a short 5-minute hike to the docks. We got there with time to spare. The seaplane folk wanted us present 30 minutes before flight and we made it. Only downside was that we had no time to get any sort of a hot lunch prior. We had to settle on eating up trail snacks and forego the hopes of a juicy burger and beer before our start.

Our seaplane

We were at the seaplane dock plenty early as requested and eventually a few others showed up. Some were on a 3pm flight, none said they were on a 2:45pm flight with us. The plane finally showed at 2:30pm and dropped off 3 individuals. The pilot came to the dock and asked for us and my brother and I loaded. Our two packs were small enough he put them in the cabin with us. Larger packs were being loaded into the pontoons. The plane had two pilot seats and then two more seat behind them. It appeared any other passengers would squeeze in behind the two rear seats.

We exchanged pleasantries with the pilot and then he set about his business. Things became so noisy in the cockpit when he revved up the engine that we didn't talk to him the entire flight. Its hard to describe the details along the way in the flight other than we absolutely loved it. The takeoff was smooth and we were immediately mesmerized in just taking it all in. From watching how the pilot handled the controls in the cockpit to soaking up the scenery as it floated away below us. We took some good photos of the wildfire smoke as it drifted away behind us to the east. The flight path took us just off the northern shore of the island where we flew over the lake waters. To see all the features we knew on the island and name out the lakes I had begun to learn was great. Before we knew it the pilot had swung to the south to make the descent into Windigo harbor. I took some video of the landing. The landing on the pontoons on the water was just as smooth as a normal jetliner landing on a runway. He "taxied" us to the seaplane dock at Windigo and that was it. He helped unload our bags and we exchanged pleasantries once more. As we walked away from the dock we wondered if this was one of those situations where we were supposed to give the pilot a hospitality tip on top of the large fares we paid or if not. Someone wiser than we will have to correct us on it someday.

Checking out the cockpit and controls

The north shore of Tobin Harbor after takeoff

Looking east to the Horne Fire

More of the Horne Fire

Pretty sure this was Lake Desor

In Windigo we made a walk up to the visitor center to double check things with the ranger. We weren't sure if the permits required us to check in there (it did not) but we figured we would double-check on trail conditions and camping conditions. We also hit up the store which was largely devoid of many options as their most recent shipment was a few days late. They were even out of ice cream much to the dismay of pretty much every hiker in the area.

The main "trail" along the Windigo shore eventually leads northeast out of town and then good signage points to the Greenstone Ridge trail start. Things were already pretty warm today (low 80s) which was a bit of a theme for this trip. We were glad to have loaded up on water before we left. The trail immediately began to ascend towards the ridge crest though as a reasonable climb. Rarely did any of the trails on Isle Royale get very steep, particularly while on the Greenstone. Five minutes down the trail we bumped into our first hiker. A very quiet man hunched over his poles who appeared to be struggling badly. I would have guessed likely dehydrated. We debated the morality of offering him our water to help while weighing that against the fact that we really needed the 2 liters we carried to get us to camp while he was five minutes from the water spigot.

The first couple of miles were pretty mundane. It was mostly tree-tunnel hiking with fairly thick vegetation. As the trail continued along the high points of the ridge the vegetation would thin but you were always under the tree canopy. You could see several hundred feet off trail on either side with just the large trees and very short vegetation near ground. It didn't take long for us to be drawn into a discussion of just how we would look back in hindsight on hiking on Isle Royale. It is beautiful and unique and special to be on the island. There are a number of beautiful things. You even feel compelled to speak favorably about the island. Yet, one has to be honest, quite a large number of the hiking miles are downright boring. Unless you are near a lake or the Superior shore or in a few of the rare spots on the Greenstone where views open up, you spend a lot of time in the trees looking at the same mile over and over again. So I've said it, let's put that thought to rest.

The best views of day one came after Mount Desor in the couple mile descent down to the lake of the same name. A few spots opened up to see Lake Superior to the north and we were glad to have them. As we planned out this first day itinerary we appeared to have only two camping options. We certainly didn't want to stay at Windigo and really needed to knock out some miles so that was never a consideration. The first main option then would have been Island Mine camp. It is 6.5 miles in Windigo but also over a half mile off the Greenstone. It also appeared to me it would basically in the middle of the woods. Option two would be to go 11.5 miles to Lake Desor South camp. Its a big first day but at least you make it to a lake. We knew this would likely put us into camp around 8pm but we deemed it worth it. And in hindsight we would still very much agree.

The junction for Lake Desor camp was well marked (as were all juctions) and we made the 0.3 hike down the hill to the start of the campground. It was all full except for site 5. Some sites had multiple campers in them. They appeared to all know each other. Though site 5 had no views of the lake (probably why it was the last one left) we were just glad to have it. The vegetation was pretty thick around camp and not sure where we would have gone if we had to go dispersed camping.

The true highlight of day one came when we walked down a small trail to the lake to fill up with water. There we found another small group sitting and watching the sunset begin. It hadn't even dawned on us to try this and we were sure glad we happened into an amazingly beautiful moment. From our vantage point on the lake shore we had a perfect view to the west with the sun setting over the treeline above the western shore of Lake Desor. Wow. Put day one in the books with a big plus.

Plenty of moose antlers to go around.
Just remember LNT!

The "best" view from the Greenstone on day one

Lake Desor South Camp map

Lake Desor


Monday, August 23
Greenstone Ridge trail from Lake Desor South to West Chickenbone Junction. Indian Portage Trail and Lake Richie Trails to Moskey Basin Campground.
Lake Desor Elevation: 896 ft.
High Point Elevation: 1,368 ft.
Distance: 21.57 mi.
Elevation Gain: 1,567 ft.
Elevation Loss: 1,843 ft.
Start Time: 7:39am
End Time: 4:11pm

Trip Report:
Knowing we had a full day ahead of us we got started shortly after first light. We were up 7am to pack up camp and get moving. It had rained for about 10 minutes around 6am so of course the outer parts of the tent were wet. That was the only rain we would see the whole time thankfully as the rest of the day would prove to be just fine weather-wise. We were on trail by 7:40am and making the quick climb back up to the Greenstone.

The first couple miles from Desor were more tree tunnel miles with not much to see. The first highlight of the day came about 3 miles from camp when we encountered a beaver pond on the south side of the trail. We ventured off trail for 100 feet or so through the trees to get close to the shore to check things out. We could see a beaver lodge and two of them in the water. It seemed like the perfect place for a moose but none were to be seen.

Our second highlight came shortly thereafter. My brother spotted on trail 100 feet ahead of us a large moving brown object. Turns out it was a beaver. He was slowly moving up trail and we followed him from a distance. It was really interesting at first until the minutes began to roll by and our new friend wouldn't evacuate the trail. We began to make noise and click our trekking poles to try and encourage him to move aside but he wouldn't budge and stood his ground. We explored options to go off trail around him but the brush was quite thick. It took another 15 minutes or so of waiting for him to move up trail until we finally found an area where we could go off trail around him. We didn't dare approach too close as he was aggressively defending his spot. We also noted some blood drops in spots along trail and could see he was harboring an injury on his tail.

Beaver pond

A couple of beavers swimming

Beaver friend on trail

In several spots along the Greenstone we began to get better views and open spots to begin to more enjoy the hiking. We could see both Lake Superior to the north and the south which was quite interesting. As our hike progressed we began weighing our destination for the day. We knew foremost we wanted to cover a lot of miles today to leave less for the morning. We had a plan to hit the East Chickenbone campground which would make today a 16 mile day and leave 13 for the morn. One catch in that plan is the National Park Service said that Chickenbone Lake was not suitable for filtering water due to an algal bloom. Staying there would require extra logistics of obtaining water ahead of time. We then considered hiking further on towards Daisy Farm. This would be an extra 5 miles past East Chickenbone. It would also provide a place to stay with great water. Downside would be reports were there were tons of people staying at Daisy Farm. We weren't sure we wanted in that mess. I had also stayed there in 2016 and had interest in trying a different campground. We began to consider yet one more option. In my research on Isle Royale I had heard a number of people comment that Moskey Basin was considered to be one of the most beautiful parts of the island. From West Chickenbone we could take the Indian Portage Trail down to Lake Richie and over to Moskey. I did some rough calculations on the distance and figured it would add only two miles to the total as opposed to take the Greenstone further to Daisy Farm. We decided on this option welcoming the extra miles and looking forward to seeing new parts of the ilsland.

The trail down to West Chickenbone had a few steep switchbacks but before long we were at the junction with a decision to make. We opted to head to Moskey. So we made our way south on the Indian Portage. We were also running low on water. Not only was Chickenbone bad for water but surprisingly so was Lake Richie. This meant our only options were to rough it out til we got to Moskey or to try water from the much smaller Lake Livermore. The NPS Rangers had said it was okay so we decided to trust their word on all these matters. We found a river access around the southwest corner of the lake and there happened to be another group also filtering there.

Lake Richie

When we came upon Lake Richie we were surprised to consider the news of the algal bloom. It looked beautiful and the waters pristine. Not sure if the NPS had issues with water near the shore or what precipitated the bulletin to avoid filtering there. We passed by the Richie campground and continued east towards Lake Moskey. This stretch of trail was in and out of the woods often moving across open rock slabs. The day was plenty warm so we were glad to have filled our water at Livermore. We moved past 20 miles for the day in this area and were pleased that the lakes still were holding up nicely.
Moskey Basin Camp Map
When we arrived at Moskey Basin campground we moved over the bridge into camp and were extra hopeful to find an open shelter or camp spot. I really wanted my brother to get a try at the shelters. We also liked the idea of avoiding the tent tonight. Well fortune wasn't entirely with us. Everything was full, even the group sites. Too bad, so many of the shelters seemed to have their own little beaches on the shoreline of Moskey Basin. We continued to check out the campground and headed to the dock area. It was here I noticed the little rock peninsula just to the north. It really looked like it could work for dispersed camping. Seemed like the type of area I've used in past backcountry experiences for a good site. So we found our way over there and sure enough found a nice secluded site out of view of everyone. It also had a nice view over the water inlet and seemed like just the type of place moose might enjoy. More on that later.

Another nice perk of our specially chosen site was easy access to the water where we decided to sit and relax. It was still pretty warm and sunny so we found some shade and made the most excellent choice of putting our legs in the cool water. After the initial shock it felt great and we're certain it made our legs feel better for the rest of the day. Reduced swelling perhaps!

Our biggest excitement of the day came around supper time. I had made a bathroom run into the campground while my brother was relaxing by the shoreline. When I returned to our camp I saw two kayakers in the water near our site. It was evident they were looking at something in the brush on the other side. I soon heard a grunt noise and more movement and knew it had to be a moose. Like the kayakers I went silent and immediately began watching. Sure enough within a few minutes a mother and calf came out. Of course I started taking video and grabbing some shots in case they retreated quickly. They were probably less than 100 feet from my position, probably only 30-40 from the kayakers. They wisely, and quietly, retreated. After catching my video evidence I figured I'd better go grab my brother so he could have a chance. I brought him back and the moose remained in the water just hanging out. In fact, they would remain for pretty much the next hour. We set about eating our supper for the night and just watched them. It was quite a surreal experience to have what felt like a private moment with just us and the moose out in the wild.

After supper we did some walking around the camp and dock area just to take in different views and we agreed Moskey Basin certainly was worth a visit and definitely a highlight of the island. When we hit camp we went in the tent for an hour to kill some time. While in the tent we heard rustling in the trees behind us. My brother peeked his head out the side of the tent and sure enough saw another moose no more than 20 feet away. We figured it might be the same mother we saw earlier. We kept still in the tent not wanting to risk an encounter at that close range. We didn't like the prospect of her trampling the tent with us in it. When it appeared she had moved further away we left the tent to see if we could get some views from a safe distance. While we couldn't see her, we could see another dozen campers in the dock area to the south who appeared to be looking for her near us.

Camp at sunset

Before the day ended we had one ore wildlife highlight. While we never did see a wolf on this trip at night time we could hear their calls back and forth. Wow! So cool to hear one make the typical wolf howl and then a few moments later another would respond. It was a vivid reminder of the wild nature of Isle Royale.

Tuesday, August 24
Rock Harbor Trail from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor
Moskey Basin Elevation: 609 ft.
High Elevation: 777 ft.
Distance: 10.81 mi.
Elevation Gain: 238 ft.
Elevation Loss: 236 ft.
Start Time: 7:17am
End Time: 11:11am

Trip Report:
Our final morning on Isle Royale began with a beautiful sunrise over Moskey Basin. It didn't quite reach the vibrant colors of the sunset we saw at Lake Desor but it was still a delight to wake up to. We had heard other campers the night before speaking of getting out to the dock by sunrise (which was just before 7am) and we figured we could get a great view right from our camp. We hopped up at 6:30am to work on tearing down camp while we also took in the sunrise. A great way to start the day. It was a damp morning in camp and the rainfly and tent were moist with condensation.

We made it out of camp at 7:17am and began moving briskly on the trail towards Daisy Farm. It was about 3.8 miles from our camp site to the Daisy Farm camp and we did it in 1:25. When we arrived I was surprised to see it had up to 22 different sites. It felt like they had expanded it since we were there last. Well I was wrong. It is and was the same size. I suspect when we were there in 2016 we just didn't see much of it and really didn't take note of its size. We also encountered a number of temporary NPS signs closing off camping in various open grass areas within the campground. It was quite evident the overcrowding had led to people choosing inappropriate (let's call it low-hanging fruit) types of camp sites instead of leaving the campground to do dispersed camping in the woods. They seem to want to crack down on that and let some of the campground be restored.

After Daisy Farm we really turned on the jets to get out. Not that we weren't enjoying the beauty of the shoreline, but whenever you're on the homestretch of any hike its hard not to fall into the temptation of just being done. We had our sights set on some good food and drink at the Greenstone Grille. One perk of this section of trail between Daisy Farm and Rock Harbor in 2021 was that it was just about bone dry. I have vivid memories of a ton of mud from our 2016 hike and this year there was almost no mud to speak of. Things were pretty dry and this made for quick work of the trail.

The closer we drew to Rock Harbor the more people we saw. People going in both directions to and from every camp and many day hikers just out for a good stroll as well. We made one stop for my brother to check out the Suzy's Cave trail as he is a big cave and mine enthusiast. Not a whole lot to see there, however. We finally made it into Rock Harbor at 11:10am or so after a delightful morning of hiking. We were pleased to be out before things warmed up too much for the day. It was also good to have a nice window of time to eat and relax before getting ready to board the ferry.

We were able to get into the Greenstone Grille though they were doing no inside seating because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were able to order and then go sit outside to await our food. We both tried their 12-inch pizzas and shared a tasty side order of fries. Much to our initial dismay, they weren't serving beer till noon. So that would have to wait. The pizza was great for our hungry tummies after almost 45 miles of hiking and much to our surprise we were each unable to finish our individual pizzas. Not sure how that was possible. But they made good snacks a few hours later during our voyage on the Queen IV. We found a nice picnic table along the harbor to sit and wait. We also used that spot to pull out the tent parts and dry them out some more.

The Queen IV has come into port to await us this afternoon

Watched them unload a large dump track
and other cargo from this barge ship

On the Queen IV looking back at the wildfire smoke

Encountering a large cargo ship on the way back to Copper Harbor

Trip Totals:
Mileage: 44.96 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,916 ft.
Hours Spent: 43 hrs, 45 mins
Another successful adventure which went for the most part according to plan. We had set out to hike the length of Isle Royale and using most of the Greenstone Ridge we accomplished it. We are still torn about how to fairly describe our experience on the Greenstone. We wrestle with the reality that many of those miles on the interior trails of Isle Royale are very mundane stuck-in-the-trees types of miles. Yet the hikes near the lakes and along the shoes are still quite beautiful and unique. We love the remoteness of the island and the intimacy you feel with nature and the wildlife. It seems there is a wide balance of beautiful wonderful things to appreciate about Isle Royale while at the same time acknowledging for many hikers there will be some challenging miles to cover.

In hindsight we will readily admit we have a certain level of being spoiled by scenery and hiking trails. We have been very blessed to spend large amounts of time in Colorado and other beautiful places in the American west. Our heart is with mountain vistas and beautiful wide sweeping terrain. Isle Royale does not have much of that. But what suits our heart's desire may not be the same for you. And that's a good thing. The amazing diversity of landscapes and wonderful places in this creation means there is a place for everyone to enjoy and we should also seek to keep it that way.

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.

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