Ultima Thule, Pt. 4: “Summer Solstice”

June, 2011.

RETURN to part 3
Getting back on the road from Donken, I arrived in Houghton right about dinnertime and took my usual walk around the picturesque town. I could see the impressive Ranger III moored at its dock downtown like always, and thought to myself, “Wow…this time I’m actually getting on that boat.” That’s kinda when it hit me; I was on the cusp of fulfilling a longtime dream. Tomorrow morning at nine o’ clock it would sound its horn and pull away from that dock as usual--but this time I would be on it.

I have started to have very sentimental feelings about the town of Houghton, since I have spent so much time there in the past few years. In fact you’ll recall from previous write-ups that I was stranded here after the death of the Thundercougarfalconbird, wherein we were forced to walk the streets for several days. If I ever had to leave Detroit, Houghton would be my first choice to move to I think. For now I had to think about lodging for the night, but I didn’t really have a lot of money, nor could I afford to spend much. I thought, hey, why not camp again like Hank and I did last summer? I sure didn’t feel like sleeping in my uncomfortable car again, but I didn’t feel like hiking all the way up Quincy Hill to find a nice ruin to camp in either. Behind me on the slope above was one of the big old three-story houses typical of the region, but it had a for sale sign in front:

I decided to go up and “see” the house…since it’s for sale after all. I climbed the long stone staircase and got up to it to find that indeed, it appeared vacant. There was a lockbox on the door and despite a light being on upstairs, the inside was bare. I stood there for a while on the porch, digging the excellent view across the town to see if anyone would materialize. Finally, I deemed it all clear and returned to my car for my bedroll.

Motels are for the rich. I was also able to secure free electricity from the outlet for the pop machine in front of the army recruiter’s office to recharge my camera batteries for the island…and a spigot behind some apartments to refill my water since I was dying of thirst. A porta-potty at the under-renovation historic firehouse provided me with my last basic need, and I was all set. I left my batteries plugged in overnight at the recruiter’s office a couple streets over (what better place to hide something than in plain view?), and went back to my lofty porch.

Really though--what an awesome house with an awesome view! I’d love to live here, but since I prolly never will, I'll camp on it for just one night. Plus, no one could see me up here, so I knew I was good. Looking down, you can see the Ranger III, and beyond it the ruins of the iconic Quincy Smelting Works on the opposite shore, which I explored a few years back:

As the twilight deepened, I rolled out my bed and sipped a Gay Miner Beer, just watching the stars begin to twinkle above the dim-glowing red dock lights of the Ranger III.


* * *

I arose at first light and swiftly erased my presence from the porch of my borrowed castle before retrieving my fully charged batteries and making a beeline to the Soumi Bakery for breakfast. Got the usual pannukakku and nisu, but I also decided to supplement the food supply I had packed for the island by having them bag me two cold pasties to go. I calculated in my head one last time how many meals I would need between now and the 25th, and convinced myself that I was finally as prepared as I was going to be to leave the mainland. Then I waited by the banks of the canal next to the Park Service office for them to open the gates.

I was excited but well-aware of the gravity of the potential challenges I was about to face over the next week. Finally the gates were opened and I went to get my car. There was quite a hassle with the sudden rush of other passengers coming and unloading and parking their cars, etc., and I ended up having to utilize the upper parking lot, then hike back down…at last I set my gear down in a luggage train like you see at the airport. When it was full with the gear of all the other passengers, it was loaded into the Ranger’s cargo hold by a tractor. I entered the office and checked in. They handed me my tickets, but just as importantly I used this opportunity to purchase a real map of the isle. Up ‘til now I had only had a small trail map, but it was plain that if I were going to do any serious backcountry bullshit I would need an equally serious map. National Geographic makes a decent 1:50,000 topographical map that is also rain- and tear-resistant. This would also give me something to study during the long six-hour boat ride that lay ahead.

Finally the head ranger in charge made the announcement to assemble on the ready line and to have tickets out. It was a chilly morning again, about 50 degrees, and I was wearing some serious clothing because I knew it would be quite a bit colder out on the lake. I could hear the beastly diesel of the 165-foot vessel idling in readiness as the ranger began speaking about regulations while on board. He also advised of the weather conditions out on the lake, to which I suddenly paid special heed--he said “We’ve got building seas out there, and they’ve put gale warnings up as of 2pm, so we may have a bit of a rough voyage but we‘re going to try and get there before the storm hits.” That certainly cast a bit of a tenseness over the trip…he continued by reading the weather report: “They’re predicting winds 20-30 knots backing to northeast by mid-afternoon with gale-force gusts and waves building five to eight feet, showers, and patchy fog. If you have to eat something, I hear bananas are good since they are as easy coming up as they are going down….” He also made note of the fact that Dramamine may be purchased from the snack bar on board.

He continued, “The captain has told me that due to the weather and high seas, we will divert from our usual course and instead follow the coast of the Keweenaw Peninsula up to Eagle Harbor before making our cut out across the lake; Eagle Harbor is the shortest distance between the isle and the mainland. That way we’ll be out on the open waters for the shortest time possible and we should make the isle without too much problem.” As I would later find out, the fact that they had diverted from their standard course was something of a big deal--almost unheard of…usually National Park Service protocol dictates that they simply do not sail on stormy days.

I smiled at the thought of being caught in a Superior gale…if the gale was supposed to hit by 2pm, then that was 30 minutes before we were scheduled to make landfall on Isle Royale. I looked at the muscular boat we were about to board and tried to imagine it being tossed in heavy swells. This was a  fairly serious boat…it was damn near big enough to be a Navy frigate. It looked like it could handle rough seas no problem, but as we all know Superior has a way of quickly becoming more than a handful. I was looking forward to a little bit of a toss though, heheh. I heard the ranger go on to explain that the water temperature on the lake was currently still only 39 degrees. I then looked at the lifeboats on the upper deck…and tried to imagine being in one of those in eight-foot swells…. The head ranger continued, “Today is actually a very special day…does anyone know why?” Silence. “Today is the 53rd birthday of the Ranger III; she was launched on this day in 1958 from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Today is also the summer solstice.”

Great…not only are we about to embark into an autumn storm on the first day of summer, but it’s also the birthday of the boat we’re sailing on. If you know anything about maritime lore, you know that if anything it is completely dominated by superstition, and that bad things always happen on anniversaries or special days. Finally the horns blew a couple long blasts and we were underway. The big Lift Bridge began to raise, and we passed under it. At that point I knew this was for real.

I couldn’t wait to get out on the open water. First however we had to navigate for about an hour through the buoyed canal northward to the Upper Portage Entry, which has a breakwall and lighthouse marking the gateway to Lake Superior. I wandered the interior of this impressive vessel--it had a very 1950s-deco vibe…it almost seemed like it needed an “I Like Ike” or “Better Dead Than Red” bumper sticker. Quite a snazzy, luxurious ship, all in all. I sat at the snack bar and got a coffee. And yes, they really had Dramamine listed on their menu (click to enlarge photo):

I had planned on eating one of my pasties while on board for lunch, but with everyone around me downing Dramamine by the handful, I decided to hold off on that for a bit, haha. However, I was definitely going to wait to see what the seas were actually like out there before being a pussy and taking anti-seasick pills. Chances were it wouldn’t be a big deal at all--I’ll save my $1. At last we came to the Keweenaw Upper Portage Entry, and off the starboard side I could see the armored steel lighthouse sentinel standing guard at the edge of the vast blue-gray abyss that lay ahead.

There was a blast of cold, cold air as we exited the inland waters and made for our charted course. I think the temp dropped from 55 degrees to 42 degrees in about a minute. I was wearing long johns, a sweatshirt, and a hoodie over that and I was still a bit chilly in the wind. On the summer solstice.

The engines tached-up quite a bit and the boat began to take on a gentle roll as we plied the waves of the coastline. The spine of the Keweenaw Peninsula stayed well in view off the starboard side for what seemed a very long time. The head ranger now made the announcement that a mandatory orientation would be held in the dining room "in five minutes" for those intending to go into the backcountry. There are two types of visitors to Isle Royale--those who come to stay at the lodge at Rock Harbor, and the people who intend to hike or kayak out from there into the wilderness.

Once the people who intended to apply for backcountry permits had assembled, he began speechifying us again--this time on the regulations of the National Park, and particularly of this island. Most important was the “Leave No Trace” blah-blah, but he also gave the obligatory “be careful out there” warnings, such as “expect rain, cold, and harsh, swiftly-changing weather conditions,” and the “there is no 911 out there” spiel.

I knew I was prepared. I looked around me at the other people and most of them looked pretty hardy too, though still a couple looked like they might not have any clue what they were in for, haha. Finally after an hour or two, our boat began to change course again to cut across the open waters of Lake Superior.

At the moment the waves were only about 2-3 feet and the ride was quite pleasant indeed despite the cold wind. Crystal clean spray splashed about in our wake as we motored along, leaving the silhouette of the Keweenaw’s ridgeline behind us in a deepening purple haze. Ahead, and on all sides was nothing but horizonless blue-gray…the mingling airs blotted out the boundary between sea and sky.

As time went on, the swells did heighten somewhat and the ride became more rolling, but in this solid brick of Wisconsin steel there was no sign of weakness. It got to the point where I had to use handholds to avoid losing balance while walking the corridors or stairs, but was very manageable to anyone with a set of sea legs. I spent my time in studying maps and the nautical charts posted on the bulkheads of the ship.

(Depth soundings are noted in fathoms).

I still had not yet chosen an exact hiking plan for the island…my main objective was to investigate as many mine sites as possible. There were a couple options for this…since I was entering from Rock Harbor at the far northeast tip of the isle, and since the island is so big there is no way you can hike across it and back in the 4 days I had allotted on my tickets, I boiled my choice down to two potential hikes.
Click for TRAIL MAP
1), I could hike out along the south shore to Moskey Basin and from there leave the trail to bushwhack into the huge, trail-less knob-shaped peninsula below it, where the Saginaw Mines and Lucky Bay Mines lay. There were a total of six shafts (depending on which map you look at), and further down from Saginaw Point, was the Epidote Mine. Further down along the southern coast from that was the Datolite Mine near Chippewa Harbor, which is supposedly very peaceful and beautiful, and contained a small shipwreck on shore. I could do this but I was a little intimidated by the thought of committing to this plan without having seen the terrain on the isle ever before. Perhaps for my first time I should pick something lighter and more on-trail so that I can get a feel for the place without subjecting myself to a potential nightmare of discomfort over the several days I’d be there. Not to mention chances are it’s damned easy to get lost out there, or just plain eaten up by the woods, never to be seen again. The old Rock Harbor Lighthouse and Edisen Fishery are both on this peninsula, and are kept open as exhibits which the park leads excursions to on a smaller boat at certain times from Rock Harbor, but I doubt they would be keen on letting me leave that tour and disappear into the woods. By looking at the maps, my good old standby method of following shoreline as a fool-proof way of bushwhacking without getting lost would surely prove to be quite a mileage-rich option on this excursion it seemed. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have to cover a million miles per day; this was more a relaxation trip than one of pure unbridled conquest, plus it looked like I might have a few rivers to ford and swamps to get through. So I considered a second possible plan.

2), I could hike out from Rock Harbor on the same trail as before, but instead of going to Moskey Basin, diverting north at Three Mile or Daisy Farm and walking the Greenstone Ridge out to the Minong Mines near McCargoe Bay. I had heard that the Minong Mine could be entered and explored, and was actually fairly big. It was the most productive mine on Isle Royale. In any case I knew we would have to declare our intended itineraries to the rangers and fill out a backcountry permit soon. That’s so in case we don’t show back up at the docks when we’re supposed to, they can come looking for us with an idea of where we headed off to.

As I was standing near the big map on the wall thinking these thoughts, someone else stopped the head ranger next to me and started asking questions. I decided to get his attention in a minute and ask him what he thought of going cross-country on the isle. He looked me up and down, then answered, “You look like you’re in good shape and fairly experienced…. You can, but I wouldn’t really recommend it.” I then asked him what he thought about that area by Saginaw Point. His reply was that he only personally knew of one guy who ever went out there, and that when he saw the guy again on the return trip to the mainland, he was “changed.” One of my eyebrows began to elevate in skepticism, and the ranger went on, “I don’t know what happened to him out there, but he just wasn’t the same person who I saw on the ride out….”

Demurely expressionless, I chewed on that for a moment while continuing to study the map before us. I then spoke again after a few moments to ask, “Was it just the bugs, or weather, or…?” The ranger answered, distantly, “I don’t know, I think it was just…everything.” After another pause I then asked him what he thought about the Minong area, and he replied that it was excellent, but to “stay away from East Chickenbone.” I didn’t bother to ask why, though I probably should have.

Minutes later, the PA sounded again to inform us to report to the Purser’s Office to declare our itineraries and fill out our backcountry permits. When it was my turn, I asked the girl what she thought my chances of making it out to the Minong Ridge and back in four days were, and she seemed to have no qualms with that. So I filled out my itinerary as such:

Day 1--Daisy Farm
Day 2--McCargoe Bay
Day 3--Lane Cove
Day 4--Rock Harbor

That would give me a nice loop of the northeast portion of the isle, and I shouldn’t have to hike blisteringly far on any single day. Perhaps 12 miles per day at most, though that last leg to Lane Cove from McCargoe was pretty ambitious I admit. Whatever, we’ll see what happens--I just basically jotted these campsites down so as to give them something to xerox; I could still go pretty much wherever I wanted. I took my copy of the itinerary and was instructed to have it pinned to my backpack at all times, or on my tent when I am camped.

I looked out a porthole and still the cold dark waves heaved and sent spray up against a drab sky. Such gloomy weather. Oh well at least it seemed we might edge out the gale; we had to be getting close now. I looked at the onboard computer and it showed us to be almost 2/3 of the way there. I decided to break out my pasty and eat lunch now, because I was friggin’ starving. I was actually kind of bummed that there was no heavy wave action to toss us around a bit, but you never know, we still had a long way to go. It was just past noon.

We had already passed through the main shipping lanes, and didn’t see a single freighter. At long last, I could make out a shape ahead…first as an amorphous purple mass widening along the horizon, then as a mirage hovering above the gray water. An hour later, it was possible to see miniscule trees. I began to get fidgety, I couldn’t wait to hit the trail running. I had to make a fair bit of distance today--eight miles, if I wanted to reach Daisy Farm--and there would not be much left of the day by the time our scheduled 2:30pm arrival rolled around.

I sat on the fantail for awhile since the wind didn’t seem to be so bad there. At last the general alert sounded as we passed through the first line of islands entering into the big harbor, signaling the crew to man their stations. It was still quite a ways up before we entered port however. Even in the dull gray light of overcast skies, the magnificence of Isle Royale’s geography which I had long sought to behold was now very evident. Spiky spruce and fir trees jabbed up from every rocky islet like porcupine quills. As you can discern from this closer satellite image, the profile of the island includes several strings of elongated islets that barely poke above the waters, and form a sort of fence or breakwall against Lake Superior’s wrath:

It had been hinting of rain and drizzle for awhile now, and I felt a few sprinkles as I waited for my pack to be offloaded to the dock. I glanced at the bulletin board at the visitor center which contained a full version of the weather report that the ranger had read to us back on the mainland…it did not look good:

Tonight called for fog, heavy rainfall, and tomorrow northeast gales and heavy thunderstorms, with waves building 7-10 feet. The word “fog” seems to appear in there quite a bit. I think we got off the big lake just in time, but damn…I’m about to get slammed with some hellish weather on this hike. I heard some crewmen of the Ranger III discussing the fact that they would not be able to make a return trip to the mainland tonight as a result, and would be sheltering the storm at anchor in Mott Island’s harbor until it passed.

As soon as I had my hands back on my pack, I fired myself off down the trail like a bottle rocket. I had to try to reach Daisy Farm before the weather hit so I could get camp set up. And looking at the map, Daisy is right on the water.

CLICK for Part 5.

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