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Isle Royale Trip: Last Island Moments at Rock Harbor

Morning at Rock Harbor

My last Isle Royale morning starts dark, as many mornings do in mid-September. The rapidly encroaching clouds from the west fill me with a sense of foreboding as they slowly block out the once visible stars. The sunrise has yet to begin, as its ascension comes later with the approaching autumn. The day’s dreary beginning provides enough of an excuse to delay getting up for a little while longer, so I roll over within my sleeping bag for a little more shuteye.

Never able to return to a state of complete sleep during the morning, I finally arise and get about my day after 45 minutes or so of delay. Before even contemplating breakfast, I pack my backpack for the day’s trip up to Scoville Point along the Stoll Trail. Previously, I contemplated taking all my equipment with me, but my sore-covered feet said otherwise; the hike is bound to be hard enough with just my day hike stuff.

Luckily, my Golite Pinnacle backpack, synchs up to a smaller size for carrying less encumbering loads, so it is ideal for carrying less equipment. Leaving my sleeping bag, my tarp and cooking gear behind should place a lot less stress on my poor, scarred feet. Plus, I should cover the 5 miles in less time, so I can get back in time for the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry’s arrival in late morning.

View Day Fifteen, Part One in a larger map

Section Stats:
Date: September 12, 2011
Length: 5.8 miles (5.8 total daily miles; 128.0 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Moderate (due to sore feet)

After a cooked breakfast of oatmeal, and about all my other breakfast leftovers, I pack up the last few essentials for my hike and limp along toward the beginning of the Stoll Trail, near the Rock Harbor Lodge.

There is not enough soul active during the early morning at Rock Harbor. Even with it past eight, there is no activity at the Visitors Center, the marina or around the Lodge. A couple American black ducks stand in the shallow water, preening themselves, ignoring my presence as I walk nearby.

The Stoll Trail begins east of the Lodge office and restaurant. The trail is a loop that runs northeast along the peninsula separating Rock and Tobin Harbors. A spur trail at the loops northeastern end leads out to the Scoville Point, where a monument in honor of Albert Stoll, Jr, stands, in memory of the Detroit News reporter who campaigned for the designation of Isle Royale as a National Park.

My hike to Scoville Point requires a lot of effort, thanks to my poor feet. The Rock Harbor side of the trail provides outstanding views of rocky bluffs along Lake Superior’s rough waters. Frequent interpretive signs tell stories about the geologic, natural and human history of Isle Royale. The exposed rock at Scoville Point allows for outstanding views of the islands off shore, while the return trip along the Tobin Harbor is quiet and serene in comparison, much of it within coniferous forest, with occasional views of the open water.

After hearing the Isle Royale Queen ferry’s horn blowing while exploring the Smithwick Mine, I hustle back to the marina at my fastest limp along one of the few paved roads. By the time I reach the marina, the horn continues to blow, even though the ferry is still not within sight. I quicken my pace toward the America dock, passing the restaurant and the lodge’s main building, half expecting the ferry to round the corner and enter Snug Harbor at any moment. Not wishing to miss a second, I pull out my camera as I am shuffling along, my sore and blistered feet screaming in agony.

When I finally reach the America dock, the Isle Royale Queen is still out in Rock Harbor proper, giving me ample time to get my camera ready. A dozen or so people at the front of the ferry watch as they approach their final destination, decked out in an assortment of different colors. Several people remain in the back of the boat, apparently more interested in what is behind them than the adventure before them. A couple are on the side, their arms hanging over the side, apparently suffering from seasickness, or maybe just watching the boat’s wake as it moves through the turbulent, cold waters. A few passengers wave as they stream past my location.

Scoville Point

The ferry moves slowly up alongside the dock at the Visitors Center, practically a carbon copy of its journey two weeks ago when I arrived on the Island. I envy those just starting their Isle Royale adventure; it was not so long ago that mine was starting, instead of ending, as it soon will.

With all the excitement of getting to the dock before the ferry’s arrival, I barely noticed the darkening skies. The dark overcast does not bode well for my journey off the Island; the wind is blowing up some seriously inclement weather. At least if it gets really bad, I can always stay in the cabin’s ferry, although the stench of the many filthy hikers might make the elements preferable.

It is nearly noon as I head back toward my shelter for lunch and some final packing up for the journey off the Island. As I retrace my steps back toward the campground, I stop and watch as the new visitors receive their orientation. It seems like only yesterday that I was getting my orientation after just arriving on the Island. I hope the new recruits appreciate their experience, since as Casey said many times during my orientation, it will seem to be over in a “New York minute.”

With a pang of jealousy, and much melancholy, I slowly walk back to my shelter, doing my best savor every last sight, smell and sound of Isle Royale before the entire experience ends.

Finding enough to make a decent meal for lunch is not an easy task. An old Lipton instant soup and the remains of some pita bread form the backbone of the last day’s lunch. I try to use the last of the alcohol by firing up my Pepsi-G stove, but unfortunately, boiling a little water does not take all that much.

Isle Royale Queen IV

Isle Royale Queen docking at Rock Harbor.

As I eat my meager lunch, promising myself a hearty dinner to make up for it once returning to Copper Harbor this evening, I sit at the picnic table and watch fresh hikers slowly pass along the Rock Harbor Trail. These are hearty souls to come to Isle Royale in mid-September, when most facilities shutter for the winter season. Maybe that is the point, to avoid temptation by any conveniences of modern life, such as showers, laundry facilities and deliciously processed foods. I quietly wish them a successful trip as I sip my tepid soup and dig through my food bag for the possibility of an overlooked tasty morsel.

After cleaning up from lunch, I pack up the remaining equipment in the shelter. Even though there is so little food remaining, the gear does not go in as easily as I thought have thought. Perhaps my equipment does not want to leave. Or maybe they know this is likely their last outing until next April?

My shelter at Rock Harbor

With it past one o’clock in the afternoon, I decide to take my leave of the shelter and head back to the Rock Harbor dock and wait for the boarding of the ferry. The departure time is around 2:45, but with the weather conditions being unpredictable, I want to be around if an earlier departure is in the cards. Grabbing my backpack and removing my permit from the shelter’s door handle, I make my last sweep of the campsite to make sure nothing is left behind.

When I reach the bottom of the hill, I take one last look at the shelter, before turning and starting down the gravel road toward the dock.

On the hike toward the Visitors Center, a Park Ranger joins me along the trail. We chat for a while, as he is looking for passengers of the Voyager II ferry; its schedule is changing due to the strong winds and will be departing Rock Harbor ahead of time.

He is definitely a higher echelon Ranger, unlike the others I interacted with at the Visitor’s Center here and back at Windigo. My first clue is he is closer in age to me, or perhaps even older, and he is carrying a firearm. I kid with him about being thankful that the Queen is leaving on time or he would be stuck with many ravenous hikers with little food. He ensures me the staff would find something to eat for all those hungry hikers if weather forced a cancelation of the ferry’s journey back to Copper Harbor.

Hikers waiting to depart from Rock Harbor

When I arrive at the dock, I find a multitude of people not wanting to be late for the departure. Hikers are milling all about, their momentarily discarded backpacks filling in every nook and cranny around the building. The group of kids encountered up on Mount Franklin is present, as are their counselors, teachers and/or chaperones. In fact, there are more people than I imagined given the number of shelters occupied the night before, apparently many of them hiked in during the early morning hours from Three Mile campground or farther away.

Being a nervous Nelson, I pace around the area, unable to stay still for more than a short period. The dock goes much farther around the store than I realized, with some benches under the eaves for sitting out of the rain. The threatening sky ensures the benches are full now, with the roofed area between the Visitors Center and the store is not much better. Finally, I end up at a picnic table over by the marina, before finally having to return to the campground to use one of the outhouses.

Finally, around 2:30, the boarding of the Isle Royale Queen ferry begins. After handing my backpack and hiking poles to one of the crew, where it is stashed on top of the boat with all the other passenger’s stuff. The little fuel I have left goes in the red milk crate, and I keep my camera, binoculars, personal recorder and GPS with me. With every pocket occupied with one gadget or another, I start thinking about inventing a hiker utility belt for such occasions.

View from Rock Harbor dock

Thankfully, despite the two weeks adventure, I still have my ticket, although some fumbling about for it ensures I end up being one of the last to board. Before crossing the planking from the dock to the ferry, I turn and take one last look around at Isle Royale. Whether I return or not, there is no way I will ever forget my time here.

Then I swiftly cross the planking and board the Isle Royale Queen ferry for the trip back to Copper Harbor.

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