Freelance writer Ron Becom spent five days backpacking with an old college friend on Michigan's rugged Isle Royale in early August.

Freelance writer Ron Becom spent five days backpacking with an old college friend on Michigan’s rugged Isle Royale in early August.

I’ll start with the summary. Isle Royale, an island in the far northwest corner of Lake Superior, is a picturesque and picturesque place.

This note for Michigan’s only national park came after I completed a five-day hiking/backpacking adventure in early August with an old college friend, Ray Skowronski. He’s a retired high school science teacher from Maryland, and he’s originally from Saginaw. We met in the cafeteria during our first week as students at Northern Michigan University at Marquette in August 1978.

I offered to take this trip to Ray in February 2021 after watching a park ranger give an online presentation on the topic to the Midland Rotary Club.

We boarded the Isle Royale Queen IV, a 100-foot boat, at her berth in Copper Harbor at the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula early on Sunday morning, July 31. We had booked a round trip last December. The cost was $150 per person. The trail covers 54 miles one way and takes three and a half hours. Captain Ben told us that the water temperature in the middle of the lake was 40 degrees, so if you’re planning to go out on the boat deck, you’d better pool.

We rode on the main deck in the front section just behind the pilot’s house, and shared a booth with a retired couple from Arizona and a family from central Oxford. Ray and I took Dramamine in hopes of preventing seasickness.

We had a smooth ride with less than two feet of waves. Cell phone reception faded and then died. As we approached Isle Royale, which is 44 miles from southwest to northeast, and nine miles wide, we could see the rocky coast and what I call its horizon, the jagged outlines of large fir and spruce trees.

Our port of entry was Rock Harbor, located on the northeastern tip. Isle Royale is the largest land mass in an archipelago made up of 400 islands. As we approached, the Rock Harbor Lodge popped up along the water’s edge. It is a 60-room inn operated by the US National Park Service. They also rent 20 cottages.

Isle Royale is the least visited national park in the contiguous 48 states, with just over 20,000 visitors in 2021. But we’ve heard more than one person report that it’s also the national park with the highest percentage of people returning for a second visit.


As we descended, we were greeted by the rangers of the national park. Brandon, a guard from New York, guided us. He told us that every time he said, “Isle Roy-AL (his pronunciation) is so wild!” Our group had to respond out loud, “How wild?”

Brandon’s main points were that moose and wolves, their distinctive attractions, go on the same paths that people do. He said it’s okay to take a picture of the moose first but if it starts moving in your direction, get out of the way. Regarding wolves, he wanted us to make a noise as fast as we could to keep them away, noting that zookeepers don’t want wolves to get used to being around humans.

There may be as many as 1,300 moose on the island and fewer than 20 wolves.

Brandon noted that the most common injuries trekkers suffer on trails are their knees and ankles. We were pretty much alone for first aid, he added, with only three guard stations on the island. He said that with no mobile reception, you would have to rely on someone in your group or another group for help.

After orientation, all campers were required to register with the visitor center. There was also a small shop. The park charges an entrance fee of $7 per person, per day. Ray had already paid for a large lifetime National Park pass, which covered our stay. We still have to record the itinerary.

After we visited the store, filled our water bottles, and weighed our backpacks (each just under 40 pounds), we asked another traveler to take an obligatory photo of us standing in front of a large map hanging near the visitor center. Then we started on the trail, heading southwest along the coast to Three Mile Campground.

The trail was bumpy with mostly rocky features and a beautiful view of the lake. This hike was more difficult than I expected, but it was just a taste of what was to come. Our walking sticks were important tools to use. It took less than three hours to get to Three Mile. On more difficult trails, a mile per hour is a good move.

The camp was a mixture of tent sites and shelters. first come first served. The shelters consist of three wooden walls, a wooden floor and a sloping roof. The fourth wall consists of several screens framed by a partition door. The sites are all primitive, but each camp has at least one outbuilding. Although I’m sure the park service does its best, there are three words to describe the outhouses: despicable, disgusting, and essential.

We got a tent site by the water. We had individual tents. One of the first things we did at the end of every outing was to take off our hiking boots and, in my case, put on my Crocs to give my feet a break and sit in my lightweight camping chair. Then we pitched our tents and started dinner.

Ray brought a small camping stove that he used to heat water in a pot. Then we put hot water into individual bags of freeze-dried meals, which were rather tasty. (The meals expiration date is listed as June 2051, so my advice is not to take them after one month in July 2051.)

After dinner, we went down to a small pier to fill our water bottles and treat that water with purification tablets. We also have a Sauer Water Filter that mounts on top of our Smart Water Bottles. Each of us carried about three liters of water.

It rained that night and during another night, but it never rained during our long journeys. In the morning, we crossed the fairways with three men packing their sea kayaks, beginning on day two of a 12-day, 110-mile voyage to circumnavigate the Isle of Royale. Fabulousā€¦

Our next destination was Lane Cove, a remote campground in the northwest part of the island. The trip covered 4.6 miles, including 2.3 miles of hills that form the backbone of the island all the way to Lane Cove. The elevation change was 550 feet. It was a challenging hike that featured what I called many “ups and downs”. We also wandered through many wooden walkways, which stretched through the swamps. Two of them were at least 50 yards long. The panels were 12 inches wide and four inches thick. Sometimes, the width of the aisles was only two panels. As Ray noted, the focus was too tight across those trails because getting stuck in the swamp with our backpacks on could have been a disaster. The mosquitos came out in full force on that flight, but our repellent did its job.

Lane Cove was a small campground on the water with only five tent sites. We were setting up when a couple in their mid-30s came over and asked if we could share the location because the rest of the camp was full. They just went over 11 miles. We said yes and had a fun evening chatting with Maureen and Paul, who are from Washington DC, they have visited several national parks, and she has been to Midland doing consulting work for Dow.

We saw a beautiful sunset behind the horizon of a nearby island. Ray woke up in the middle of the night and took a great look at the stars. In the morning, Maureen said she heard wolves howl. They left first and we followed later. This was the hardest stretch of our trip, as we hiked the 2.3 miles to the top of the ridge.

Then we headed southwest along the Greenstone Trail, first to Mount Franklin and then to the Fire Tower on Mount Ojibway. Two otters surprised us when they crossed the road just behind us. We later learned that they go to the top of the mountain to eat berries.

During our trip, we crossed trails with hikers from all over the country. During short conversations, we learned that many have the goal of going to all the national parks. Isle Royale is the least visited national park in the contiguous 48 states, with just over 20,000 visitors in 2021. But we’ve heard more than one person report that it’s also the national park with the highest percentage of people returning for a second visit.

As we had lunch under the Tower of Fire after our weary morning, we met an aunt and uncle from Troy with their teenage niece and nephew. I annoyed the children by asking, “Is this a reward for good grades or a bad punishment?”

The view from the fire tower was amazing. We could see Thunder Bay, Ontario, from afar.

From there, we went down to Daisy Farm on the East Coast. It is the largest camping site on the island and has 36 sites. We were able to secure our first refuge after walking about seven miles that day. We checked out the big pier and joined some college students who were taking turns jumping into the freezing water. As soon as I hit the water in my hiking clothes, I worried I’d have a heart attack before I got back up the ladder. But it was refreshing and it felt so good to sit in the sun afterwards. We learned that the water temperature was 51 degrees. Yikes!

On Wednesday, the fourth day, we walked northeast along the coast and then across a hillside to take the Tobin Harbor Trail to Rock Harbor. We covered more than eight miles and got the last available shelter. After camping, we walked on sore feet to the Greenstone Grill at Rock Harbor Lodge and enjoyed probably the best pints of beer we’ve ever tasted while sitting in rocking chairs on the porch. John and Andy from Minnesota, hikers we met along the way, joined us and had dinner together.

We finally saw the moose at 5:30 on Thursday morning, our fifth and final day on the island, as she was slowly emerging from the woods next to our shelter. We went on a two-mile “day hike” just north of the inn and watched two seaplanes take off from Tobin Harbor, one carrying John and Andy back to Houghton.

After packing in the early afternoon, we returned to the main pier and waited to board the boat to Copper Harbor. We noticed the “non-conductive” side of the island where we saw people in a conversation and not on their smartphones. Think about the last time the power was disconnected for several days.

Will I come back? I sure hope so.

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