2022 July 3 & 4
I made it to Todd Harbor directly from the Voyageur II on Day 1, which was July 2, and set up camp. This was the easy day. On Day 2, I progressed from Todd Harbor into North Desor Campground, traversing 12.4 miles. On Day 3, I continued from North Desor into Washington Creek at 13.3 miles of rigorous hiking that ended in a steady rain for three miles out to the moment I walked into Shelter 9. The playlist of the hike is here.
Todd Harbor sits at lake level, so the first part of the day is hiking up to the ridge. As I was packed and ready by 7:00, I hiked the trail as it meandered through swampy areas prior to beginning the ascent. The morning was cool and damp, so I made some good time on the trail. Twice, I was able to stop to see moose. The first was a cow in a stand of poplar trees to the right of the trail. At first she trotted off a ways, but soon I spotted her through the trees staring back at me.
A little further along, I came to the leading edge of a beaver pond. In it, about 30 yards away, a bull moose stood, chewing on a mouthful of vegetation, seeming to ponder my presence with vague attention, as though my passing by was of little or no consequence. We stood facing one another, he eating and gazing. Not wanting to offend, I moved along, turning twice and then the third time. He remained as he was, chewing the vegetation, considering something I was sure was not me. Still, I kept an eye on trees to dash behind until he was safely behind me.
The first sign that the Minong Ridge Trail is different from the Greenstone Ridge Trail occurs at the junction marker to Little Todd. The path to connect with the Greenstone is well-traveled, with the route to Little Todd going off through a swamp with wood blocks placed corduroy fashion in the trail to help hikers across the soggiest parts. Several times on this trail, I mentally thanked the trail crew keeping the trails in shape, and also for “eye candy,” moose antlers placed on stumps or alongside the trail.
Between Todd Harbor and Little Todd is my favorite part because the trail crosses tops of the ridge that are covered over in trees, with steep drop-offs to the north and south of the ridge into swampy areas. The path is soft underfoot and the forest shields the trial from the merciless summer sun. Thimbleberry bushes lined the trail with their white blooms as I passed through.
Halfway through this pleasant section, if there can be said to be a pleasant section on this particular trail, I sat on my pack to listen to the world I was walking through. There were small songbirds and herring gulls. The breeze rustled the trees overhanging the trail where I sat; bees tended thimbleberry blossoms. A garter snake crossed the trail into the bushes. There were wild roses and wildflowers along the trail as well as birch trees.
When you ascend the ridge passing out of the forested area, the trail traverses the top, meandering over lichen and through juniper thickets, past the skeletons of trees that did not survive the parching sun baking the rocks or the arctic blasts from Canada in the dead of winter. The, surprise, there is a small patch of wild strawberries tucked on the hillside between the apex and where the trail disappears into the forest to cross the swampy shallows to ascend the next ridge. The trail’s beauty is demanding on the body.
Prior to the Little Todd Harbor trail junction, there is a stream hikers have to cross either by stepping on the rocks (which there are not enough of) or by balancing on a frail log that looks as though it will give way at any step. Sitting for a few minutes, I filtered water to be able to skip the trek into the Little Todd, which saves about 1.5 miles. Because I had only three days, this choice was not an option. Not stopping after the 6 or so miles from Todd Harbor, though, impacted my resilience on the worst part of the hike, which is from Little Todd to North Desor.
This part of the trail encompasses the worst of the elevation changes in the shortest distances, sometimes descending and ascending again 500 feet in a tenth of a mile. Because I have hiked this trail several times before, I was prepared for this rigor, but I always forget the energy it takes until I am actually in progress. If you watch the video account, you hear me exclaim at the last big ascent that perhaps they could have found a more direct route. Of course, there isn’t one. Ridge to ridge is what it is.
On the second day, I saw only a group of young men just as I crested the ridge a second time after the creek before the Little Todd trail junction. My point is not that I crave company. I mean to point out the limited potential for assistance in the event of an accident or a miscalculation that could result in a need for assistance. There is no assistance short of an SOS beacon, which I prefer not to use. Of course, if I had an emergency, I would use it. As a guide For Wise Old Man of Isle Royale Guide Services, I know the importance of carrying it. My awareness of this isolation reinforced the need for care. I did not run, and I did not let the need to make it to North Desor hurry me. Instead, I made sure I had adequate water for the duration and hiked safely.
From the ridge, I could see Sleeping Giant. As I progressed westward, my perspective changed, from being even with the body to overtaking the head. A few times, I had to slow and look carefully for where the trail went, as sometimes the markings are faint or not at all. At midafternoon, I sat on my pack under pine trees and watched a couple of goshawks floating and swooping above the treetops.
Even though the trail seemed to disappear, it did not. I scanned the area to see an alternate route, but there was none. I could not go around the tree. Approaching the the blockage, I could see areas where bark was rubbed off as people had climbed over the fallen trunk. Moss clung to the dead branches. Peering over, in confirmation, I saw a cairn standing a dozen feet beyond the deadfall. Being short, I had to scramble to get over the log, but I did and continued on my way along the ridge to the next steep descent into the wet and lush forest below.
The trail alternates between the rocky ridges and the lush forest between the ridges. To some extent, I say that a little ironically because sometimes it is often as accurate to say cedar swamp or marshy area. Here, though, is a common view of the trail between most of the ridges in the section between the Little Todd Junction and North Desor. When you are not traversing ferns or brushy areas, you can be pleasantly surprised by a trail that is similar in short sections to what you expect on parts of the Greenstone Ridge Trail, lush and soft.
From time to time, the trail crew shares a little gift for people wishing to see moose. This old shed was propped on a rock next to the trail and it descended into the forest. You can see that it has provided rodents and small critters with nutrients as its tips have been gnawed off. Next to the antler shed are yellow flowers in bloom. As I climbed and descended, climbed and ascended, I took my time, taking standing breaks often and rationing water so that I would have enough to make it the length of the hike in the direct sunlight of the ridges.
Nearing the end of the 12.4 miles from Todd to North Desor, I stopped more often and took off my pack. Each time, I emptied my boots of debris and left them off for the duration of my rest. I probably sat three times during the hike for periods of 20 to 30 minutes, just making sure I wasn’t tiring to the point of being careless. In planning, I realized that the long days would require snacks so that I had some fuel in my system to power through, including protein bars, salted nuts, trail mix, and beef jerky in small packages so that I could snack and not feel sluggish from eating.
By the time I reached the North Desor marker and headed into camp, I was exhausted. I set up my tent and filtered enough water to last me the evening and for the next day, and I retired to the tent for the night. One other campsite was occupied by several people, but they were the first party I had seen since the midday on the ridge. Prior to that, I saw one group of young women on the hike from McCargoe Cove to Todd Harbor on my first day’s hike. The trail was very peaceful, even as it is difficult.
Later that afternoon, as I hiked that final and long ascent to the ridge prior to the North Desor trail marker, I was greeted by the strange rattling voices of two sandhill cranes, likely telling me to stay back from their colts. They were more than a dozen yards above me on the ridge. For a few moments, I enjoyed their acknowledgement, but my sore feet overruled and I continued on to my destination. By the time I reached 11.3 miles, my legs and feet were getting sore, and I needed to get into camp and set up for the night so that I could prepare for the last grueling day, the 13.3 miles into the Washington Creek campground. Mostly, I needed to sit at then end of the 12.4 miles.
I ate beef jerky and granola that evening and slept soundly. Cold food conserved pack weight with no stove or fuel. I awoke just before 6:00 and was packed and hiking slowly and methodically by 7:00. There are ups and downs all along the trail, somewhat less pronounced than from Little Todd to North Desor, and there are three beaver dams to cross between miles 6 and 10, each of which presents particular challenges.
Prior to the beaver dams, the trail continues winding up and down ridges and through vegetation taller than I, which means a little more than 5 feet to be at my height, and these are taller, sometimes by a couple feet. The swampy areas are also pronounced, with much mud and confusion of direction because the moose use the trail, too. When hikers get confused, there ends up being many trails to nowhere. Instead of just following, look where each option goes and choose wisely. The trail crew is helps with aids to cross and ribbons here or there. I looked for the clues they provided.
Almost exactly 7 miles west of the North Desor Campground I saw an abandoned inflatable mattress. It underscores the importance of planning for hiking Isle Royale. Yes, this is litter, but it is also symptom of someone not being able to rest because of discomfort and cold emanating from the ground. It suggests an accident waiting to happen. Information is key to safety, and the person who carried this item for ten miles is sorely in need of information.
As I approached the dam, the sharp left turn across the top of the beaver dam–which I should take–is not readily visible from the westbound trail direction. Instead, it seems that the trail turns sharply to the right, past a couple of fir trees and then veers sharply left to traverse the top of a dam. Going to the right is not correct.
I could see that people have started across this dam, but I also saw that this part of the dam did not connect to a trail. it led to nowhere but swamp. Because so many people make this wrong turn, the trail is well-worn and contributes to the confusion. As soon as I ascertained that the trail went astray, I turned around and went back 30 or 40 feet past the spruce trees.
When I got back to the turn, the trail extended across the dam right in front of me. The way was obvious when I followed with my eyes. This year, the trail crew added ribbons to help. At the first ribbon, stop. Look left along the water’s edge. See the second one in a tree branch extending over the dam.
Then I saw the footprints across the shallow dam and then the wood pieces where I could walk, not a boardwalk and not really corduroy, but it’s there. I could see the hillside that I would climb beyond the swamp to ascend the ridge again.
Once I passed the third beaver dam, the trail continued with some elevation changes and swampy crossings until it connected with the Hugginin Loop trail to cross Washington Creek and merged with the Greenstone Ridge Trail just outside the Washington Creek campground. On this last leg, boardwalks were available at crossings, and the trail widened with each mile closer to Washington Creek.
Of course, there is always the unplanned. At 3.5 miles out, it started to drizzle, making the trail slippery and causing me to think about putting on my pack cover and rain gear. Given the rigor of the trial, though, I was sweating, and rain gear would surely make me overheat and have to stop. As I continued, the drizzle turned to rain, so I had to slow down instead of speeding up as I wanted to do. Still, the thought of sitting and not having to hike tomorrow was drove me forward, one careful step after another.
With the trail determined, I set off directly on the dam. Once across, the trail goes left and then right in a switchback, ascending the hill.
Following the first dam is the longest boardwalk on the island. I don’t like boardwalks, and especially not long ones. Given this fact, I am astounded that I forget this boardwalk each time I do this trail until I am upon it. This is me crossing, poles extended before me to ensure that I don’t misstep.
The boardwalk crosses over some truly noxious swamp, but I do okay, even though the fear of falling is strong. The boardwalk makes the crossing easy.
When I am crossing over, the length of the boardwalk seems to go on and on and extend higher and higher above the water below, which slows my progress.
The second and third dams have no such issues with losing the trail. On approach, they are readily visible, so you don’t wonder which way to go. This one proves to be not a problem at all. Here, as on all dams, trekking poles facilitate not sinking in the mud. This year, the dam was less muddy, so I had no trouble getting across. As I crossed, I had the sense that we needed more rain. Since the 4th of July, though, it has rained some.
With the second dam, you come down the hill and the dam is right straight ahead–proceed directly over. It is easily visible and well-defined.
The trail to the third dam descends steeply downhill through an evergreen forest. It’s located only about four miles out of Windigo so you know you are on the home stretch. One of the biggest problems with the last dam is fall in as you balance on logs that cross over the expanses of water. The logs are not solid, nor are they solidly moored in place, so going slow and ensuring you place your poles carefully is essential.
In the middle of this dam, a young solo woman hiker came up and passed me. She was the first person I had seen on the trail (other than the people camped at North Desor) since I met the young men near the Little Todd Trail junction. While I skipped Little Todd and went to North Desor, she skipped North Desor and went from Little Todd to Washington Creek. She had planned to hike through the Hugginin Loop on her way, but she said she was too tired. She balanced across without a pole as hers malfunctioned. It was tenuous, even to watch.
The trail behind the dam wall requires crossing over the run-off streams on logs lying parallel to the dam wall. They are loose and move when you step on them. As you approach the end of the crossing, the trail veers leftward and is lined with blocks corduroy-fashion.
Duane walked out to meet me at 3 miles out of Washington Creek, and he was a welcome sight, not for the water he was carrying, but for the congratulatory presence he represented as we walked the last few miles into the campground. My feet hurt, my shoulders hurt, my boots were slowly getting soaked, and I was using up the last of what energy I had as we crossed the bridge over Washington Creek and past the junction markers on the ever widening path. As I walked, I reflected on the lessons learned from my solo adventure.
This hike is grueling. Skipping a campground made it even harder, so I know I will take an extra day next time because there is much to see, and rushing makes it impossible to slow down and look. Also, I had no time for any delay or deviation from the plan. One should have a little leisure to recover from or accommodate whatever might go awry. I will always need a Garmin. If I lose the trail, I can find it again. If I don’t have a Garmin. I must hike smarter and not get lost.
At the end of this adventure, I can say this: At 62 years old, I hiked solo across the Minong Ridge Trail on Isle Royale. With planning and preparation, I minimized my risks, realized my limitations, and made choices to facilitate my success. I did it. Was it difficult? Yes.
As I sat in the shelter warming up after getting soaked, I was glad I had that extra change of clothes. I was also glad to be done. The Minong Ridge Trail is not to be taken lightly.