Saturday, October 25, 2014

Isle Royale Planning, Apr-May 2014

The backpacking trip to Isle Royale (in Lake Superior) became an option only a month and a half out.  I had heard about Isle Royale National Park (IR) for years, but it was not an option for vacations with my non-backpacking spouse.  When she decided to spend her vacation time in May helping out at her parents, I jumped at the chance to head to IR.  My backpacking experience was limited.  I had accomplished 4 night/5 day trips in the Adirondacks while living in Rome NY, but had been limited to overnight trips since then.  Plus, those Adirondack trips were in the mid 90’s, with pack weights (including food and water) that approached 50 pounds.  Even back then, the weight was burdensome enough that I kept mileage to 6-8 miles per day.  Being a lot older, I wanted to reduce the pack weight and see if I could travel further each day.

My initial (pre-reservation) research was not as thorough as I would have liked, but it sufficed.  I wanted to go early (May) to avoid crowds and insects.  In the Adirondacks, June is basically off-limits due to dense black fly clouds everywhere.  I didn’t want to go for just a few days (since I was coming from Texas), so I wanted a hotel before and after the trip to the island.  Plus, I needed to drop my wife off in Kentucky.  That put ferries out of Houghton or Copper Harbor Michigan as the best options.  The NPS Ranger (Houghton) wasn’t operating in May, so that left Copper Harbor and the Isle Royale Queen.  The Queen only did trips on Mondays and Fridays, so I had the option of 2, 4, or 7 night (or longer) trips.  With limited vacation time, the 7 night trip seemed the best trade-off.  I booked May 12 (out) and May 19 (back) on the Queen, and hotel reservations at Mariner North in Copper Harbor the nights before and upon returning.

I continued to do research and preparation.  I was reading trip reports, looking for info on island conditions, and trying to replace my heavy equipment and clothing.  I created Excel spreadsheets to track pack and food weights, and pretty much did a full replacement of my equipment.  I ordered a 30 degree down quilt and a tarp tent from cottage suppliers, and was a little worried about arrival times.  The littler items came via Amazon, seemingly in individual (but way oversized) packages via Amazon's Prime service.  My wife was irritated by the nearly daily deliveries.

I was able to get the pack base weight down to about 18-19 pounds, but the food, water and fuel bumped it up to about 34 pounds.  When I finally put the food into the plastic baggies and their odorless liner/stuff sacks, I was shocked at the volume required.  On my next trip, I will work to reduce that volume.

Research into weather conditions started to worry me in early May.  I had found references to the NOAA satellite imagery, and a lot of Lake Superior, including the bays and lakes on IR, and at Copper Harbor and Houghton were still iced in.  Then the Voyageur out of Grand Portage Minnesota delayed its first trip to 14 May.  Then I found the NOAA snow estimates.  Even after the satellite imagery appeared to show the disappearance of snow and ice from the island, NOAA was estimating 20 inches of snow around the island’s perimeter. Either those 20 inches disappeared during my three travel days from Texas to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (possible), or their snow model is lousy.

Unfortunately, on 9 May, I got a call from the Queen staff, that they were cancelling their 12 May ferry due to remaining ice on the lake.  They were unsure if their 16 May or 19 May trips would occur, though they seemed a little more confident about 19 May.  So I changed the reservations to ferry dates out on 19 May and back on 26 May.  My wife had to change her plans too, and this created a lot of family turbulence.  Worse, we weren’t sure the Queen would actually make the trip on 19 May.  The NOAA snow estimates were making it questionable whether the trails would be passable.  And I couldn’t shift my vacation time again at work.  So I created a fall-back plan of hiking a 60 mile North-South trail in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area (Kenutcky/Tennessee).  The trip length, food and fuel requirements would be nearly identical, but the weather predictions called for much warmer weather. 

We departed Texas on 16 May, and I had both sets of equipment (mostly clothing changes) with me.  We still didn’t know for sure that the Queen would sail.  But a call that day confirmed their expectation the Queen would make the trip.  A call to the IR NPS at Houghton indicated they believed trail conditions were passable, though they were still concerned about the trails on the north side of the island.

We stopped in Memphis that first night on the road.  The next day we met the in-laws in Elizabethtown, KY for lunch and then I continued on alone up to Racine, WI for the night.  I got an early start and reached Copper Harbor mid-afternoon on 18 May.  I was surprised that you check in at Mariner North at the bar.  After unloading, I drove around town to see if there was any ATT cell coverage—there was not--despite the fact that ATT’s coverage map indicated some coverage in the town.

Trip reports had indicated scenic views at the top of Brockway Mountain, so I drove down to find the road up.  The road was closed, and looked in pretty bad condition.  But I did see a young female moose on the road just south of there.  I had dinner at the Mariner North (walleye), which was pretty good.  And the Mariner had WiFi, so I was able to get an email to my wife letting her know I made it.  But then their WiFi went down.  It was also down a week later when I returned.  I did some final repacking, read a little on my Kindle (which I took with me to IR), and hit the sack.  I was still unsure what I would find on the island.  I still had the 20 inch snow prediction in mind, so I left the one pound plus fishing gear behind and substituted the Kindle for recreation.

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