My two-week Isle Royale adventure is quickly drawing to a close. For several days, I take note of the limited number of times each event occurs before my trip becomes a memory. Now I sit on a log at the intersection of the Mount Franklin and the Greenstone Ridge Trails, eating my final lunch on the trail.
My last trail lunch does not go by in complete peace and quiet though. When I finish eating my lunch, I continue my rest just a little longer, wanting to savor every last moment by sitting quietly on a convenient log, catching up on writing notes about my last portion of the Greenstone Ridge. The group from Mount Franklin quickly interrupts my tranquil moments, as they trickle down the trail, accumulating at the intersection, obviously instructed to do so by several adults bringing up the rear.
The woman, apparently the leader of the group, does most of the talking, as she did on Mount Franklin earlier. She has an authority about her, as if she was used to directing groups of people. She reminds me of many teachers I knew in the past, tweaking my authority figure resentment.
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She points out to the children that I am journaling just as they were back on the mountain. My journal is probably not as interesting though, I respond modestly. She smiles, and remarks there is probably more profundity in writing. Who uses the word profundity in a conversation? Suppressing my inner Larry David, I retort, only in my mind though, profanity is probably more like it.
Date: September 11, 2011
Length: 4.6 miles (13.0 total daily miles; 120.3 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Difficult (long day)
After the brief conversation, they depart down the Mount Franklin Trail, the same direction I plan on taking to the Tobin Harbor Trail on my journey back to Rock Harbor. Not wanting to immediately hike up their collective butt soon after taking the trail again, I take my time packing up my stuff and getting my socks and boots, enjoying the warm sunshine and occasional breeze.
When I finally start down the Mount Franklin Trail, it is nearly three o’clock in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the long rest has done nothing to ease the pain from my blistering feet, throbbing returns soon after my first step. The trail immediately descends steeply after the intersection, through spruce and balsam fir as it departs from the Greenstone Ridge. Scattered among the conifers are towering aspens, miraculously surviving whatever weather event fell so many their cohorts elsewhere on the Island.
As I work my way down through this steep descent from the Greenstone Ridge for the last time, I see something fly up to a conifer tree adjacent to the trail. Approaching the tree, I notice a gray jay perching on a tree limb at about my head level. Slowly, I remove my camera from its weatherproof case at my hip belt, and take several pictures of the attractive bird. Amazingly, the bird shows little apprehension due to my presence, its curiosity apparently getting the best of it. Its fascination is merely mirrored by my own, as these birds are one of my favorite boreal forest birds, a species I see only occasionally in my normal stomping grounds in the Adirondack Park of northern New York.
The trail finally levels out after descending steeply for about a half mile. Soon after leveling out, the trail passes a small wetland, choked with grasses and sedges, with a few scattered snags. As the trail continues along the wetland, the grasses give way at the center to open water, with a plentiful number of lily pads floating upon it.
The wetland remains mooseless, despite my frequent stops along its perimeter. Despite the current absence of moose, current sign indicates their recent presence, as a short distance down the trail yields several small fir trees stripped of bark and climbs. Obviously, moose are in the area, or were a short time ago. Either that or one of those kids ahead of me marked their territory.
A short distance east, the forest becomes sparser due to the increasing amount of bare rock as the trail begins to descend again. At the edge of an open, grassy descent, I finally catch up with the church group, as they rest along the trail. After a brief conversation, I continue down the steep slope as the trail crosses an open area on rock, with tall, brown grasses and scattered trees lie on both sides of the trail.
Near the bottom of the slope, an unusual open ground pine tree demands a few photographs. I think it is a jack pine, but given my atrophied dendrology skills, I am not positive. By the time I discard my backpack and quaff down some of my dwindling water supply, the church group is right on my tail, making me delay any attempt at photography.
Patiently, I wait for them to head down the steep and open slope, my camera dangling from around my neck. The woman leading the group stops and chats again, questioning me about my trip, my blog and assorted other topics. Her group is staying at Three Mile Campground, less than a mile away, and they are taking the Isle Royale Queen IV tomorrow off the Island. Since this is my ride too, I am bound to see them again tomorrow. Before departing, she repeats the blog URL several times and communicates her anticipation at seeing my many photographs of the Island.
After she disappears into the forest at the end of the decline, I find myself along again with the suspected jack pine near the bottom of the slope. Even though a large group just passed by, the feeling of being the only person within miles swiftly returns, despite the fact the Three Mile Campground is less than a mile away. Savoring the feeling, I return to my photography before another group of people passes by.
After taking many photographs of the jack pine tree and its surrounding habitat, I return to hiking along the trail, with increasing trepidation that I missed the intersection with the Tobin Harbor Trail. At the end of the open descent, the trail enters a conifer forest for only a short distance, before reaching a swampy area where it continues on a plank boardwalk. The planking meanders through alder bushes scattered amongst grassy tufts and exposed mud.
The planking leads to a bridge over Tobin Creek, and soon ends when the trail reenters a dense young spruce/balsam fir forest followed swiftly by the Tobin Harbor Trail intersection. Seeing the signpost, I now realize for the many blank stares discussing this trail with others on the island. For almost the entire trip, I called it the Todd Hobin Trail without even realizing it, after a local band in the area where I grew up.
A short rest seems appropriate, so I stop for a little while for a snack and a little water from my dwindling supply from Moskey Basin earlier in the morning. There is little water left, although this concerns me less as it cools down now that I am off the exposed ridge and entering the later afternoon hours. The short rest stop does little to relieve my aching feet though, which feel like ground beef about now with no chance for immediate improvement until reaching Rock Harbor, still a long three miles to the northeast.
The Tobin Harbor Trail begins with thick alders to the north, and a spruce/balsam fir forest to the south up along a ridge. The conifers are young trees, growing closely together and allowing little light to penetrate their dark interior. Being wedged between thick alders growing in swampy surroundings and a dark, impenetrable coniferous forest elicits claustrophobic feelings, heightened by an imagined scenario of how to escape an aggressive moose coming down the trail.
Thankfully, this situation only lasts for a short distance before the open water of Tobin Harbor replaces the alders on my left. The trail parallels the shoreline, remaining largely level and easy to hike, with a line of trees separating it a unobstructed view of the harbor. Frequent gaps in the trees allow for some gorgeous views across the harbor to some open rock on the opposite shore, or up the harbor toward the northeast. The opposite shore slowly draws away, as the harbor increases in width, largely because of the narrowing of the peninsula as the Rock Harbor Ranger Station nears.
As the surrounding conditions continue, the trail becomes a little monotonous, facilitated in a large part by my aching legs and feet. The unchanging situation allows my mental focus to turn inward, with my mind wandering through a gamut of unrelated topics, such as what happened in the last three episodes of Breaking Bad, where I shall spend the single night on my ride home and how long it will take before my feet fall off. Finally, I find myself not thinking of anything at all, the pain in my feet forcing all other content out of my thoughts. Thus starts my Isle Royale Death March.
The death march is a state of mind and body familiar to anyone with a significant amount of hiking experience under their belt. Few hikers are able to avoid experiencing this phenomenon at least once during their hiking career. Typically, the characteristics of a death march consist of overly ambitious miles, arduous conditions (from such sources as aggressive terrain, unfriendly weather or hordes of angry biting insects), a state of exhaustion and an excessive dose of discomfort. These characteristics combine to form a state of dissociation, where the miles appear to go on endlessly.
My death march mindset is momentarily broken when I see a snowshoe hare at the side of the trail. Unfortunately, mental clarity does not return in time for me to wrestle the camera out of its protective case at my hip belt before the lagomorph hops nonchalantly off the trail and into the dense young spruce and firs. Reaching the spot where it vanished, I can clearly see the hare is only a short distance from the trail, but the densely packed tree stems makes capturing a quick auto-focus photograph impossible. Although I make an attempt to engage the manual focus, I lose track of the hare in the process. My pain-addled feet scream Rock Harbor, so I do not dawdle long before continue the limping and its accompanying death march toward my final destination for the day.
The Suzy Cave intersection breaks me out of my death march mindset again. Memories of visiting the cave on my first day from the Rock Harbor Trail fill my mind, momentarily supplanting those of my sore and painful feet. Exploring the cave from this side does not cross my mind though, as I smell the open barn door of Rock Harbor now that there are only 1.8 feet-suffering miles left to my trek according to my map. Too bad none of the restaurants are open in Rock Harbor, as I start fantasizing about a nice juicy grilled steak right about now.
The Tobin Harbor Trail continues over terrain increasingly more aggressive after the Suzy Cave intersection. Rocky does not do the trail justice, each rock becoming either a constant obstacle requiring evasive maneuvers, or a surface to stub my already aching toes against. Frequent steep cliffs now replace the previous short descent down to the water’s edge from earlier on the trail, with the views of the beautiful harbor now cut off by the trees growing between the trail and the drop off.
Many times the trail moves away from the water and climbs a steep rise, with me gleefully celebrating my arrival at Rock Harbor at the summit, only to be disappointed that the trail descends back to its original elevation and continues on. Does the trail really have to rub it in so often? Limping up each of these steep rises is getting a little old.
Each time the trail turns a corner, I feel the same way as with every steep rise. The excitement builds as I happily anticipate Rock Harbor just around this next bend, with my hopes dashed when there is nothing but rough trail forward. Will this death march ever end?
The forested side of trail becomes more level, almost all it decimated by wind throw. Most of the conifers lie on top of each other in a jumble, with only an occasional tree still standing. Many of the downed trees near the trail are cut; the trail cleared in the not too distant past. Frequently along the trail, well-worn herd paths meander off into the debris. I assume these paths lead to the Rock Harbor campsites, but this may be wishful thinking as still the trail continues, with no obvious end in sight.
After an especially steep climb, the trail levels out and a short wooden sign indicates the seaplane dock is one way, while the lodge, Ranger Station and campground are in another. Finally! With absolutely no hesitation, I head east toward the Ranger Station and campground, my natural propensity to explore the seaplane dock along Tobin Harbor long gone, along with the comfort of my hiking boots. In a short time, my feet will be in the relative comfort of my good old Crocs, or in the cold water of Rock Harbor.
Soon the footpath terminates at a paved road, one of the few on Isle Royale. Another sign here indicates the location of the housekeeping cabins (yes, they actually have such thing at the Lodge), and in the opposite direction down the road, the Ranger Station and campground. As the road descends, I see such unusual sights as power lines, telephone poles and even buildings. Then it dawns on me, my long stay in the Isle Royale backcountry has ended. A sad day indeed.
Despite the melancholy of ending my journey across the Island, it is impossible to contain my joy as I nearly skip down the road as it descends to the Ranger Station, visible through the trees. The symmetry of my long two-week sojourn is not lost on me as it ends in the same place it began nearly two weeks ago. Although, it is completely lost on my feet, which are just happy the ordeal has finally ended.
Silly feet. There is still more than half of tomorrow to go before the ferry takes me back to Copper Harbor. That leaves plenty of time to explore the Stoll Trail to the end of the peninsula.
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