Isle Royale, Day One: Kinetic Memory

It’s a lively entrance into the harbor – a few fishermen are chilling in the commercial channel, and seem entirely unbothered by the large passenger vessel approaching them at speed. They don’t move or really bother to look up before an unexpected blast from the ferry’s tooting mechanism and an adapted loudspeaker rendition of “hey you kids get offa my lawn” from the captain, after which they grudgingly make way. We put in and tie off with no further excitement, save the fact that we’re here, Isle Royale National Park at last.

The Leave No Trace orientation we’re given on the dock serves both the obvious purpose of getting folks to think about the damage they unnecessarily cause when they’re in wild spaces, and the less-obvious purpose of letting the ferryfolk unload our cargo unharassed. The Ranger is deliberate as she helps us talk through each of the Seven Principles as they relate to the park; of course, Spesh and I get picked on, and though I don’t know how she picks us out of the crowd, I’m amused enough that I don’t mind the wee bit of work she sets for us. Some folks selected are clearly trying to rush through their thoughts, wanting to get into that interior sooner rather than later, but she makes sure to elaborate on their points, leaving no bones about expectations when it comes to our behavior while we’re here. She invites us all to look around, take each other in, hold each other accountable for any less-than-Leave-No-Trace behavior we see. It establishes a strange sense of community for one, two, three breaths, then it’s off to the races with everyone wanting to get on trail at once.

Spesh and I have some organizing to do – as it turns out, shoving everything indiscriminately into your pack in an effort to get on a leaving boat does not make for a fantastically-packed pack. We go through everything again, sorting what we need for the trip and what we need for the time after. The duffel full of teaching materials and presenting clothes gets stowed for our return three days hence, and then after talking campsites with the rangers and buying a new annual pass to cover our time in the park1 and checking in to make sure they don’t need anything from us until our first meeting, before we finally, FINALLY, give ourselves to the wild.

Or the first campground, at least.

Campgrounds here seem to grow organically off the trail, with shelters – what luxury! – closer than you’d think they’d be, and tent sites a little further off. For their proximity, they seem private, and while we glimpse gear on tables, perhaps foolishly left out, we don’t see many people poking their heads out. And then, the campsite is past, and it’s a shoreside trail that leads us merrily along into the backcountry.

the water is SO CLEAR how is that possible it’s a lake

The first four miles of shoreline, marked by the passing of pine trees punctuated by bare rock, fly under our feet; I call for a break and discover that we’ve already reached Threemile, the closest camp to Rock Harbor. It’s 3pm; we’ve done 3.8 miles in an hour and a half. Not bad for being ridiculously out of shape wearing packs not meant for loadbearing. We find an unoccupied campsite where we can hear the waves knocking gently against the shore, and sit and eat a lunch of cheese and chorizo paste that’s strange but satisfying. In my hunt for a pit toilet, I run into a ranger who points me in the right direction, find Spesh chatting with her on my return about good campsites at Daisy Farm. So many female rangers in this park! We’ve encountered four now, and it’s heartening to see.

We dawdle for hours, until we feel we can dawdle no more – 4.2 miles to Daisy Farm, where we’ve decided to sleep for the night. Packing up feels natural, right; my body remembers this, and while there are some new aches and pains, right ankle knee hip, that will probably be with me the rest of this trip if not the rest of my life, I feel ready for it, ready for all the challenges the hiking, the island can throw at me.

Spesh is ready, too

In the throes of our final mileage, I call it – I get a feeling that we’re about 20 minutes off from Daisy Farm, that we’ll arrive at or before 6:03pm local. Time ticks by, and we see the dock that indicates the campsite in the distance; I turn on the afterburners, hustling down the trail, but as time ticks by, I don’t think we’re gonna make it. 6:03 arrives, and I slow to a stop, sighing, turning around to Junaid to admit defeat. Beside me is a hip-high sign, a map showing the campsite. We’ve arrived.

so have the moose, maybe?

Aaaaand there’s nowhere to camp. I’m out of it now that we’ve stopped, a little zonked, having a hard time making decisions. Well, a harder time, anyway. All the tent sites are taken, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sleep under a roof on our first night backpacking in forever, even if it’s only under a screened-in shelter. Junaid checks the group camps to see if they’re occupied, and comes back with a college student that’s hammocking alone in Group Site 3 with the blessing of the ranger. He’s happy to share, and we’re happy to take him up on that.

I set up the tent I haven’t really seen since the PCT – hello, old friend! …Why are you so small? Were you always this small? Was this really my home for 2650 miles? I worry that, after sharing a roomy, ten-pound, four-person tent, he or I or both of us will get claustrophobic in this tiny space, so I agree to leave the rain fly off if he agrees to get up in the night if it rains and put it on. He readily does, and I settle in to discover that the tent, despite its outward appearance, is bigger on the inside.

It gets a little more cozy once Spesh joins me, but leaving the fly off was the correct choice – it’s 9:30, and there’s still so much light in the sky. I stare up at it, heedless of anything else but noticing the small changes, squinting my eyes to try to make out stars in the darkening sky. 10:15 rolls around and it’s still not as dark as I expect it to be, but the planets, then the stars, start to wink at me, telling me it’s safe to sleep, and I do.

Day’s Mileage: 8.0
Notable Accomplishments:  Hiked faster than expected  •  Actually got to relax instead of rushing  •
An undistracted evening under the stars2


[1] Staying on Isle Royale, whether you’re in the lodge or in the backcountry, is $7 per day per person, and since we’re staying seven days, that’d be $49 each vs. the $80 for the annual pass.

[2] There are more photos for “tomorrow”, promise. I’m really bad at taking photos when I’m focused on a thing.

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