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Isle Royale: The Long Drive Home

Lake Superior

With my two-week trip hiking from one end to the other of Isle Royale National Park complete, the journey home took center stage. My plan for the two day, one thousand mile sojourn is to repeat the route taken to get Copper Harbor back in August, with the slight exception of avoiding all the construction along Lake Michigan, and instead stick to the interior of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

My first morning after leaving Isle Royale came way too early. Whether it is the strange surroundings of a bed, being clean after a shower the night before or the windy conditions continuing from the previous night, I am unable to return to a restive sleep even though the sun has not yet risen.

Most likely, a simpler root cause is at play, such as the anticipation of two whole days trapped in my car, especially after the previous two weeks of spending nearly every waking moment in the outdoors beneath the open sky. Talk about culture shock!

Instead of tossing and turning in an attempt to return to sleep, I start packing, which allows an earlier start on the day’s drive back toward home. It takes little time to pack up my car, as I left most of my backpack unpacked and brought in only a duffle bag with a change of clothes during the previous night.

Section Stats:
Date: September 14 & 15, 2011
Length: ~979 miles
Difficulty: Easy (almost all driving)

After a few trips back and forth to the car, I stop at the Bella Vista main office to drop off my key in the drop box before saying good-bye to Copper Harbor. Within a few minutes, I am heading south on US-41 toward Houghton and drawing closer to Syracuse with each passing mile.

The winding road is dark and wet from the previous night’s rain, with smaller tree branches littering the tarmac. The wind remains strong from the previous night, with the trees swaying back and forth as if waving me good-bye. With the threat of a downed tree blocking my progress prominently on my mind, a smaller limb suddenly emerges from the darkness right in the middle of the road. My evasive steering results in the car straddling the limb, without even a slight clunk from underneath. Thankfully, it was just a small tree limb.

As I emerge from the surrounding forest into a more residential area, growing closer to Houghton, I keep my eyes peeled for an open diner or restaurant, where I can get some breakfast. Unfortunately, I pass the first one I spot, confident another one will present itself soon.

This does not happen. Apparently, there is only a single open restaurant serving breakfast on the entire Keweenaw Peninsula.

It is not until reaching L’Anse, at the very base of the peninsula at Keweenaw Bay, where I finally spot another one. I nearly go past that one too, but after having second thoughts, I turn around and head back, just in case there is not another one before reaching Syracuse tomorrow.

While waiting for my breakfast to arrive at the Hilltop Restaurant, I chat up a curious elderly couple. They notice I am perusing a roadmap as I wait for my meal (incidentally, one so old it may have been drawn up by Lewis and Clark), so they ask me a boatload of questions about my trip, where I am from and where I am going. By the time my breakfast arrives, they are long gone, so I return to my ancient map while I devour my long overdue breakfast.

Packing for the trip home

The Hilltop Restaurant serves a mean breakfast. A large plate of steak and eggs, served with home fries and two slices of their homemade toast (which is considerably larger than a slice of normal bread and nearly twice as thick) is thoroughly delicious. The meal is so substantial that I go without eating another meal again until dinner, with only an occasional snack of crackers from the previous night’s dinner in Copper Harbor. All for just a little more than fourteen dollars, too. I could really get used to this traveling shtick; probably get twice as heavy too.

By around 7:30 am, I am back on the road, driving south on US-41, through some seemingly thick forests until merging with M-28, where both turn due east. US-41/M-28 continues directly east for much of the Upper Peninsula, most of the time perfectly straight, as if someone actually planned it that way.

Just passed Michigamme, I see the sign for the McCormick Wilderness, and cannot resist the gnawing urge to take a short detour and revisit an area that played a significant role in my becoming the Bushwhacking Fool I am today. Plus, there must be a place to stop and pee on the way, which I so badly need to do after all that orange juice I drank at breakfast.

Turning onto County Road 607, the undulating road continues seemingly endlessly north. With every curve, the urgency to find a place to pull over increases in proportion to the pressure in my bladder, as does the speed of my car.

McCormick Wilderness parking lot

In addition to the road’s meandering nature, it also suffers from excessive frost heaving, appearing as if from a third world country or a war zone. Despite the serpentine nature of my driving, it is impossible to avoid every bump and/or crater, increasing my urgency to an uncomfortable level with each endured. The next bump or depression will surely be my last, resulting in soaked underwear, and a stained and smelly seat.

Even driving at excessive speeds, well beyond any semblance of safety, making it to the parking lot seems unlikely unless it is around the next corner, which it never is. Recovering from each disappointment, I repeat the mantra, just around the next corner, just around the next corner. Fortunately, before a supremely embarrassing situation occurs, a turnoff presents itself, where I pull off, screech to a stop and take off running into the surrounding, and unfortunately, posted forest.

Returning to my car with a smile on my face and a spring in my step, I continue north until finally arriving at the McCormick Wilderness parking lot. Luckily, I found the previous place to turn-off and relieve myself, as there is no way I would have made it that long in my previous condition.

I hike along the main trail for a short distance in my old running shoes, turning around at a small stream crossing well before reaching the trail’s terminus at White Deer Lake. My feet remain sore, the short walk more painful than I imagined, even in my comfortable shoes.

An angry Lake Superior

After returning to my car, I drive all the way back to US-41/M-28, and continue eastward on my journey back toward the Mackinac Bridge, where I can turn south and transition to the mitten of Michigan. Just passed Marquette, US-41 heads south, parting company with M-28, which continues east.

I continue east along M-28, noticing a rubbing sound emanating from underneath my car whenever I slow down or speed up. At an attractive pull off along the southern shore of Lake Superior, I stop and look underneath the car, but there is nothing obvious causing the noise. I hoped to find a tree branch caught up underneath, but no luck. Probably something caused by the frost heaved road on the way to the McCormick, which most likely will require an excessively expensive repair later when I return home.

Before continuing on my way, the sound of the waves lapping the sandy shore lures me to the edge of the beach. Thankfully so, as the most beautiful view of Lake Superior presents itself before me. The scattered fluffy clouds hang far over the dark, frigid water, the strong wind generating a continuous series of waves, pounding the attractive sandy beach. Unable to resist the urge, I dash back to the car to get my camera and tripod, recording the view for all eternity. Or, at least until digital photos go out of vogue.

A series of incredible Lake Superior views continue, off and on, all the way to Munising, where M-28 leaves the Great Lake behind, heading south for a short ways before turning east again. Luckily, I avoid getting into an accident despite constantly stealing glances of the lake instead of keeping my eyes on the road.

Lake Superior shoreline

When reaching Newberry, I stop for gas and something to drink at a gas station along the highway. When paying for some green tea, I ask directions about the location of M-123 south, which I intend taking south to I-75. I already passed M-123 north without a corresponding south, leading to some doubt on my part with regards to where the heck I am going.

After securing gas, a green tea and assurance that M-123 south is further east, I return to my journey east. Soon after leaving the gas station, the highway enters a thick forest, leaving any semblance of civilization behind once again.

With a large, boggy clearing up ahead, a black bear jumps out of the surrounding trees, racing me down the highway. Luckily, I lost the race, and as a prize got to keep my health and car intact.

Finally finding M-123 south, I drive to I-75, cross the Mackinac Bridge and continue through Michigan’s mitten. The highway quickly becomes monotonous, despite the attractive, rolling terrain. The miles fly by, as the maximum speed limit is 70 miles per hour, with nothing but an occasional odd billboard providing some momentary amusement.

By the time I make it through Saginaw, it is getting dark and I desperately search for a motel sign, signifying a nearby place for me to stay the night. None conveniently appears, so I keep going another 15 miles before numerous motel signs pop up just off the highway at Birch Run.

The Best Western is the first to catch my eye, so I pull in and get a room for the night. They only have a few available, and nothing as basic as a small one bed, so they give me a nice suite for the single room rate. The room is huge, with a TV viewing area complete with a comfortable large couch, a queen-sized bed, and a freaking heart-shaped bathtub right in the middle of the room. Or is it a hot tub?

Although there is a restaurant just a short distance away, I decide to take the lazy way out and order some food right at the bar in the motel. Since the Hilltop Restaurant this morning was my last meal, I order a calzone AND a salad. Unfortunately, both of them are huge. Despite sitting on my butt all day driving a car, I am famished and finish both without much effort, washing them down with a nice, cold beer in the process.

After my meal, I retire to my room for the evening. The plethora of television channels available quickly thwarts my plan for an early night. Channel surfing reveals the second episode of the new season of Sons of Anarchy at 10 PM, so I stay up and watch it despite my exhaustion.

The next morning, the free continental breakfast is an outstanding way to start out my last day of travel. After feasting on a couple breakfast burritos and fresh waffles, complete with a plentiful array of syrups and other toppings to choose from, I stuff my pockets full of some fruit for later, pay my bill and get back on the road before nine in the morning.

Best Western motel room

Heart-shaped tub

The rest of the drive back to Syracuse is largely uneventful. By a little after 10, I cross the Blue Water Bridge into Canada. While in Canada, I stick to the same route as before, only going backward. I even impress myself with remembering all the convoluted highway changes without ever checking the map for directions. Okay, maybe once or twice.

By just a little before two o’clock in the afternoon, I cross back into New York at Niagara Falls and follow the Thruway all the way home to Syracuse, arriving just before five in the afternoon, with plenty of time to unpack and get ready for a return to responsibility and civilization. Lucky me, not.

Thus ends my sojourn to Isle Royale, another wonderful trip for the record books. The only thing lacking was the absence of a lot of bushwhacking. Oh, and the wolves.

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