Falling UP + Isle Royale Beginnings

It’s barely the end of August, and the chill tendrils of fall are starting to push their way into Michigan’s upper peninsula. I’ve spent the majority of the day until now wrapped in my sleeping bag, first in the tent, then in the hammock, and I’ve been thankful for it – it’s our first day in five that we’ve been allowed to sleep in, to move in the morning of our own accord. Still, the cold of both the mornings and the evenings haven’t lent themselves to much movement; only in the stark sun of the cool afternoons are short sleeves, a skirt, tolerable.

We’ve been working hard since we arrived in the UP, first at trying to make miles with packs not purpose-built, then at making connections, first on Isle Royale, then here on the Keweenaw Peninsula. We’ve spent a week here, catching up from our week out of service, working with incredibly passionate people to protect the lands they’re slowly turning from private to public. The lack of any real break, combined with the emotional fallout from a return to a land of false equvalencies and attempts at public lands-grabbing, has meant a starker schedule for me: wake, work, succumb to the inexorable draw of a nap, half-wake, work late, dinner late, insomnia. Repeat. It’s only now, with a half-day to myself – Spesh knows I need recharge time, and has left me to my own devices – that I’m able to look back on the last couple weeks, to feel like I can do the Isle Royale trip any justice in words that, before now, stayed obstinately stuck inside. But here’s a taste, to be augmented in the coming posts.

I always misremember how fraught it is, preparing for a trip last-minute. We’ve been involved in a work project, and finally release it into the internet ether, for better or for worse, but there’s still so much to do. We check a local store, but end up having to hit an REI up for dinners and fuel, a grocery store up for lunches and snacks, a gas staion up to be able to get there at all. Six and a half hours, the GPS says – six and a half hours to Copper Harbor, where our ferry departs from, with a shift from Central to Eastern time in there for funsies. It’s 3pm.

Spesh swaps out for me about 45 minutes outside of town during a bathroom break, but we arrive right about on time, at 10:30pm local. Of course, it’s another hour trying to find a place to sleep, Saturday night and all the campgrounds full to watch the meteor shower tonight. Even the dispersed camping we know of seems to be near to full, and we end up in the almost-mud near a dirt pile whose purpose we’re too exhausted to divine. It’s slanty and stabby and quite frankly we’re just thankful it’s here, hopeful we’re not on the edge of someone else’s camp, contented we’re not sleeping sitting up in the car.

I don’t recognize the tent as we’re setting it up; we’ve been too long inside, cushioned for the last week by a combination of Airbnbs and the love of friends I haven’t seen in nearly a decade. Outside again, the tent’s dimensions seem all wrong, the zippers are at my feet instead of at my head, everything’s just… off. It’s probably because I’m so tired I feel like puking, and the feeling’s in my head arms legs everything is just so much effort, but I feel obligated to watch the sky a little while. It’s not every day there’s a meteor shower, and the night sky is so dark here that their tails draw lasting lines against the stars. I watch until my eyes roll back in my head, more unconscious than asleep.

I almost cry when the alarm goes off a scant six hours later, feel the sobs rising in my chest before I swallow them down. There’s no time for that; we’ve done no gear organization, and the ferry leaves in two hours. Limbs of stone take forever to pack the few belongings that even made it into the tent last night, and by the time we make our way back to Copper Harbor and ferry parking, that two hours has dwindled to one. It’s a crazy one of shoving food into backpacks and teaching materials into duffel bags, praying all the while that nothing’s being forgotten. I remember the lessons of the Boundary Waters, though; insect repellent is one of the first things that makes it into my pack.

I’m pretty sure we’re one of the last groups on the ferry, all out of breath from the limited jogging with about 50 pounds of gear and food and fuel and lesons between us. We buy a map here on the mainland; no telling whether they’ll have any on the island, and it’ll be fun to look at on the trip. There’ll be enough time, for certain; it takes three and a half hours to travel the 54-odd miles from harbor to harbor.

And there is enough time – enough time to read the map, chat with other passengers, accidentally steal someone’s space along a few seats to take a bit of an anxious nap. To get up after who knows how long and read for a while. To watch a young child wake up quite calmly, look around for parents, chill for about five minutes, and burst into terrified tears on the return of her father. Said father smiles and comforts her, lets me know the island, at long last, is visible in the distance. I contemplate waking Spesh, who’s barely gotten to sleep, but decide to let him be. There will be miles to make soon enough, and he should be rested enough to face them.

I make my way out into the sunshine, make my way to the chain at the prow, conscious of my height but wanting to see everything. And I stand there with the wind and the sun competing for my attention, cloud-wisped sky above me, waves bouncing the boat gently beneath me. Isle Royale grows out of the lake in front of us, and I am already enchanted.

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