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I’m pretty stoked to finally get to share about our backpacking trip last year to Isle Royale National Park! There a ton of resources out there to help you plan your trip, but my perspective is of a thrifty Scout Leader that went with a large group of youth backpacking for a week. The trip went surprisingly smooth and the rangers and staff at the Voyager II answered all of the questions I wasn’t able to figure out on my own. I’ll post later about how we prepped and trained for the trip. Long post with photos ahead. Enjoy!
As I was working on my post this morning, I also wanted to mention the importance of keeping an outdoor journal. Here are a couple of colorful shots from the small moleskine I brought on our backpacking trip to save weight. It’s pretty awesome reading through details I had already forgotten, and hopefully leaving some history for my family to read one day. Do you preserve your adventures?
THE TRIP: Feldtmann Loop
LENGTH 35 miles
DIFFICULTY Moderate with ups and downs of about 600 ft of elevation each day.
DATE July 15-21, 2016
MAIN FEATURES Moose (supposedly), Lake Superior, Backpacking, Greenstone Ridge!
Day 0 July 15: Minneapolis – Grand Portage
Our trip started with a 6 hour drive to Grand Portage Marina, the only campground near the Ferry to Isle Royale on the Minnesota side. It’s an RV park, but was a nice little place to stop for the night and get a pizza at the casino so we could get an early start in the morning.
Day 1 July 16: Grand Portage-Windigo-Feldtmann Lake
The day started early at 5:30am after a night of packing, dumping and repacking our packs. We hustled everyone down to the Voyager II Ferry by 6:30 and were underway by 7:30am. The ferry ride was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Unless you go by plane, a boat is your only way to the beautiful Island and the ferry is definitely part of the adventure. Some people took a nap, others explored the small ship and got their face wet up front, all seemed to enjoy the new experience. Thankfully, Lake Superior was unusually glassy and calm today.
The view coming into the Island was breathtaking and we knew we were all in the right place.
Once we reached land, the Ranger met us on the dock, gave us a quick Leave No Trace presentation, checked our permits and we were free to go. We spent about an hour checking in, weighing our packs again at the visitor center and purchasing a forgotten water bottle at the Windigo Store. The Windigo store is a small shop on the island where you can pick up a few common supplies you might have forgotten. Don’t rely on it for supplying your whole trip, but it’s a nice place to grab an ice cream sandwich or a pizza as a reward at the end.
We had some hiking to do, so we said goodbye to Group 1, who would stay at Washington Creek their first night and started out counter clockwise journey of the Feldtman Loop!
The path got narrower the further we went in and it was clear where the day hikers stopped and the backpackers began. We saw people on the first 2 miles of the trail, then just one after that. In mid July, the Thimble Berry bushes were waist to shoulder high and some of the white flowers we had also seen in Glacier were 6-8ft tall. We felt so tiny in the lush green of this trail. We wished for a machete for the last 1 ½ mile of the hike and the Scouts did a fantastic job navigating when we couldn’t see the trail.
Early on the hike we found a moose skeleton, then a full rack! Later we would see EXTRA LARGE tracks on the trail…but alas…we saw no moose. There are over 1,300 moose on the island and only two wolves. Surely we will see a moose, I thought, this place is infested with them!
We finally got to camp around 5pm, checked out Feldtman Lake (leeches!) and set up our tents. I thought of Group 1 and how they would have to get going REALLY early at the end of their trip to make it to the ferry in time since they had the short camp first. The new gravity water filter worked great and we made a delicious dinner of enchiladas and Angel Food cake!
DAY 2 July 17: Feldtman Lake – Siskiwit Bay
Woke up to the sound of Loons on the lake! We got up at 6am, planning to leave at 7…left at 8:30. It was a little damp and chilly so my little cup of instant coffee was just what I needed.
Although we trained a lot for this trip, our Scouts were pretty tired and moving slow. Lots of adjusting of packs, water breaks, messing with shoes… we definitely had two paces in our group as we hiked. Eventually the Scouts agreed to try out this old Civil War method of marching they we had heard about where you hike for 50 minutes and rest for 10 until you get there. It sort of worked ok, maybe for an hour… The scouts agreed at camp that night that it was harder to hike slow than to just keep a steady pace and that the rest of the trip should be different.
The first half of the hike was pretty hilly up the Feldtman ridge and we were up high enough to see down to Feldtman Lake. At the midpoint, we stopped at the fire tower, where we could see Lake Superior on 3 sides! Saw a couple of friendly white clouds form, but nothing worrisome. We saw the biggest Birch Trees we’d ever seen on our way down, and enjoyed eating Strawberries on the trail. Saw more moose tracks, but no moose.
The rain that was supposed to hit from 9-5 skipped us during the day and condensed into a storm that blasted us from 4:30-5pm. It came out of nowhere, left us in ankle deep water and we had to hike super fast to get to our next camp! This was my second close encounter with lightening in the backcountry and there was a whole lot of prayer and counting until it was over. We were on the verge of dropping our packs and scattering when it dissolved.
Just as the storm broke, we finally arrived at camp. Wet clothes hanging everywhere, a few wet sleeping bags and the soggiest boots I have ever worn. ALL worth it, we were about to see Siskiwit Bay!
DAY 3 July 18: Siskiwit Bay
Due to the Ferry Schedule and number of group camps in the loop, we had to pick a spot to stay two nights. I have never had a zero day on a backpacking trip, and after yesterday’s storm, we could not have picked a better spot to dry out and enjoy the Lake.
I got up at sunrise and headed to the Lake alone. I sat on the red rock shoreline, watched loons play in the misty cove, was stalked by a hungry seagull and listened to bees in the flowers. I didn’t realize how long I’d been sitting there until I found myself slightly baking in the sun in my long johns while the rest of my wet clothes were drying on the rocks. I wonder if my boots will ever dry.
I could care less what our next two campsites look like, this….Siskiwit Bay, is what I came here for. Heaven. I am so thankful that we will be here for two days.
We spent day 3 skipping rocks (almost the WHOLE day!) and hanging out on the shore. We ate our meals on the end of the dock and by the end of the day, our clothes were dry but all of our boots were STILL wet. We filled them with warm red rocks and that helped with the drying.
We brought all of our food down to the shore with us when we were not at camp. We had heard about the fox that steals boots (no joke! Tie them up!) and the small critters at this campsite and were not interested in losing either our boots or food this early in the trip. I surprised a couple of ground squirrels that had actually crawled IN my son’s pack and flew out when I shook it. No bears here, but there were plenty of mini bears.
**Edit** Normally, when backpacking you would be required to hang your food or put it in a bear box to secure it anywhere you go. This ensures safety for both YOU and the wildlife. We brought gear to hang our food but the Rangers on the island gave us a paper flier during our leave no trace orientation, instructing us to us to keep all food and smellables in our shelter, boat or cooler. I couldn’t find anything online to reference here, but I will say it was pretty nice to not have to deal with a bear bag everyday. Always keep your food away from the edges of the tent, as critters will chew through the fabric, and just to be safe, we took all of our food with us if we were all leaving camp.
Later that afternoon, we did some exploring of the area and were disappointed that there wasn’t a trail out to the tip of the point or really any spur trails to venture onto. When we came back to the shore, we had a double Bald Eagle sighting over the lake with Loons in the background! As he loons swam closer, we realized that there were 8 babies and a Mother. Beautiful.
Along with Skipping rocks all day, the boys climbed rocks, picked raspberries into the evening and dared each other to do various things, like see who could stay in the frigid lake for the longest, who would dunk their head, who could get the most sunburned…hours of technology free entertainment!
We ended our 3rd night with a campfire at the fire ring on the shore and met a couple of fishermen from Duluth that had just pulled in on their boat for the night. This is one of the few spots you can have a fire on the island, so check before your trip and don’t rely on having a fire for cooking.
DAY 4 July 18: Siskiwit Bay – Island Mine
The day started with a trip down to the lake again to watch the sunrise. The Duluth Fishermen were still there and I headed back to make a quick cup of Starbucks VIA coffee and start the water for breakfast. We really didn’t want to leave Siskiwit and it is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever camped. The boys took their time and were ready to hit the trail around noon. The timing ended up being perfect, because just as we were heading out, Group 1 showed up! It was nice to see them after being apart for a few days. We traded stories, gave trail reports, laughed hugged and took a group photo on the shore before we split up again. They saw a moose! Lucky.
We hit the muddy trail that follows along the shore of Lake Superior and lost it about an hour into our hike. The mud, beaver dams, animal trails and other natural changes made the trail hard to find for a while, so we ended up getting detoured for about an hour. After climbing through trees in a swamp, I finally pulled out the Delorme and we got straightened out and back on the trail. Only one scout fell into the swamp and now I can say I climbed a tree with my backpack on.
The last 1-2 miles were straight up on the Greenstone Ridge. We saw our first Oak Trees at the top of the ridge…no moose yet. We arrived at camp about an hour or two later than we’d hoped, skipped the Mine ruins because we were too tired and found our first mosquitoes. This was the only site that was BAD for bugs. Its thickly wooded without a breeze, but we started a fire to dry out our boots and it helped keep the bugs at bay.
Island Mine had the FANCIEST and newest Privy on the Island. It even smelled like fresh Pine! The rangers had just put it up and were there to check on it.
The creek at the bottom of Campsite 2 was absolutely beautiful. Long winding creek bed with fern, tangled roots and a full canopy of forest leaves above. I really thought I’d see a moose here.
DAY 5 July 19: Island Mine – Windigo
Woke up sad that today would be our last day I the backcountry. I hate it when you can’t fully be present in the moment because you feel like it’s already over. I decided to fight that feeling and make myself pay attention to the beauty that surrounded me. This has been such an amazing trip for all of us.
Got everybody up an hour early on accident because my phone (my only clock) had somehow received a signal when I turned it on to see what time it was and it flipped time zones. Isle Royale is on Eastern time.
We hit the trail at about 9am with all of the pack adjusting, wardrobe changes, etc. We got a chuckle out if it being us this time, the adults, that were lagging in the group.
We hit Sugar Mountain about a mile outside of camp and had quite a bit of mud. Not as bad as yesterday but it occurred to me that this trail was way more difficult than we had thought it would be for the following reasons:
- MUD – The kind of mud that you can’t even go around. The kind that makes you climb trees with your pack on and build bridges with any dead wood you can find. The kind of mud that soaks your boots for DAYS.
- OBSTACLE COURSE- Downed trees on every trail. Ankle twisting roots and rocks everywhere and shoulder high plants blocking sight to the trail and whipping your face.
- SUDDEN ELEVATION GAINS – The gain up to Island Mine left us all huffing and puffing yesterday and a few points today were pretty intense. Drank 3L of water before 2pm and was completely drenched when I arrived at camp. We totally thought this place would be more flat.
All that being said, it was still so AWESOME! And we were in the Wilderness, what did we expect?
We made record time descending the Greenstone Ridge. Although we were relieved to see the Windigo/Washington Creek sign, I also felt that pang of sadness….the realization that this was it….this was the end of the wild. Soon we would be back at the Windigo Store eating junk food, flushing toilets and filling water bottles from a spigot.
The boys set up their tents at site 2 and headed straight down to the store. Mountain Dew, York Peppermint Patties, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, Ice Cream Sandwiches! I arrived a few minutes late because I stopped to wash my hands in the glorious bathroom sink with SOAP!
The rest of the evening was spent at the store playing games, gathering water and relaxing at camp. I really hope to see a moose tomorrow.
DAY 6 July 20: Washington Creek – Windigo – Grand Portage
Woke up to thunder and Lightning at 4am with water pooling outside the tent. We all woke up, hunkered down a bit and waited for it to pass. Later, my son would tell me that he slept with the rainfly off before the rain started and saw the northern lights.
At sunrise, I got up, put on rain gear and stood out by the river for about an hour waiting….in the rain…this is supposedly where the moose bring their babies. Not today. No moose.
During the morning storm, I thought about our scouts hiking nearly 9 miles from Feldtmann Lake to get to the Ferry by noon. That’s one boat you do not want to miss, it only comes every other day and it’s your only way home. They were able to get onto the trail right after the storm and hike at a steady clip with just a little rain.
After the unsuccessful moose stakeout, we headed to the store for coffee and treats. I think the Scouts favorite part of the trip was the Windigo store. From there, it took us a couple of hours to get all packed up and down to the dock. Group 1 actually beat us!
We all felt relieved and a little sad then we the boat came. But alas, it was time to go home. The ride was choppy with 2ft waves and a couple of people felt a little seasick. I was glad we would have one more night camping at the marina before the long drive back home.
Once we got to shore, we perked up and ended up having enough energy to spend the afternoon at Grand Portage National Monument to learn about the history of the area and up to Grand Portage State Park to see the waterfall and visit their Hiking Club Trail.
Looking back, as we hiked down that final descent of the Greenstone Ridge, all I could think about was the next trip. How great it would be to return, how we would challenge ourselves to hike the entire length and maybe see a moose.
A little slice of paradise in the middle of my beloved Lake Superior.