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Aside: The Race is on Isle Royale

Greenstone Ridge Trail

The race is on. Or at least, on Isle Royale, that is.

Backpacking on Isle Royale is like playing a giant game of musical chairs. Each morning an exodus occurs from the campgrounds, as hikers spread out in a quest to cover as much trail as possible in the shortest amount of time. All in an attempt to get their choice of campsite before the music stops and the campgrounds fill up.

Unfortunately, much is sacrificed at this altar of expediency. Mornings, a perfect time to reflect and appreciate nature, are hurried so as to get on the trail early. Breakfast and lunch are short and convenient above all else. Hiking becomes almost a forced march, as getting from point A to point B is more important than taking some time to enjoy a view or take a detour to an off-trail lake. All is forsaken so as to arrive at one’s destination early enough to secure a choice campsite. Or, better yet, a comfortable shelter.

Getting a campsite is an imperative unfortunately, especially since the campgrounds are not very close together. Not getting a campsite in the late afternoon may require doubling up with someone else, or even worse, hiking many miles to the next campground. And the next campground could be at least 10 miles away.

Fortunately for me, my trip to Isle Royale last summer was during the off-season. Between what I observed, and conversations had with to long-time visitors, it could have been much worse. Apparently, this racing mindset is more pronounced during the on-season of July and August, when the number of visitors to the island skyrockets.

At first, I bought into this hectic lifestyle, at least in spirit. In reality, my propensity for enjoying a relaxed early morning (I was on vacation, after all), and general slowness and inefficiency kept me from embracing this cultural phenomenon completely. The enjoyment of such activities as the morning bird chorus (as withdrawn as it may be in early September) and a wholesome and hearty breakfast were enough to slow down my departure time well after most others departed the campgrounds.

In addition, once on the trail my lackadaisical hiking philosophy, which values experiences over schedule, took over, and rarely did I ever pass an individual or group, except for those encumbered by injury or inability. My nearly irresistible urge to identify every bird encountered and the need to take short detours to explore interesting natural and historical sites did not help either.

After some time on the island, I abandoned all pretenses of maintaining this racing island culture. Instead of embracing it and trying to hurry through my Isle Royale adventure, I slowed down even more, and savored every moment. Let others race to the campground and take shelters or the better campsites.

Little Todd Campsite

If I failed to get a shelter, that is why I carry my tarp. If doubling up at a campground is my fate, then so be it (it happened only once at North Lake Desor). If I get stuck with some mediocre campsite, it is only for a single night (I usually got to choose between multiple sites). Plus, during the course of my backpacking career, most of my backcountry adventures involved bushwhacking, which has required erecting my campsite in some of the most God-awful places imaginable.

Visiting Isle Royale requires embracing this racing philosophy (which may be unavoidable during the busy season), or actively opposing it, and hiking to the beat of one’s own drummer. Adhere to the hurried culture get up early morning every morning followed by racing down the trail at a hurried pace, possibly missing some wonderful experiences, or give up entirely on the dream of having a shelter or campsite to yourself every single night.

If the former sounds appealing then just remember to wear some lightweight trail running shoes. You will need them. Oh, and plenty of moleskins or other blister treatments. You will most certainly need them too.

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