I love a tough trail. When I hike, I’m in my own mental space. I like the sound of my own breath and the reflective effort it takes to navigate a tough trail. My core motivation for hiking has something to do with absorbing the ambiance of the forest, or the waterfront, or cliff edge that I am walking through or by and also with my relationship with myself as I hike.
It’s chasing a purity of thought, or state of being, that can be found in doing a difficult thing well. For me, hiking is always somehow solitary, even when I hike with a partner or a group. It’s introspective, even when it’s shared.
On the trail, I think outwardly and inwardly. Most people do, I think. Inwardly, I’m aware of my needs for staying safe, like when I should eat or drink, when I should rest, what my limitations are, so that I don’t exceed any of them. Outwardly, I focus on the trail and the terrain I traverse.
On the ridges, I pick the path with the least elevation changes in the short term, like the next few yards, pushing a hard pace until I’m limber. I pick my way around and over obstacles and think about them and about why they are there. Yes, like was it a receding glacier gouging or a lava flow protruding that made it this way? I assess how to better navigate it the next time through.
These obstacles are like old friends that I met last time and the time before when I was here. Especially leading with Wise Old Man of Isle Royale Guide Services, these friends are sentinels on the trail, providing valuable assurances that we are where we should be.
There is the bulbous tree on the Minong Ridge Trail between Todd and Little Todd, the reroute over the beaver dam on the trail to Malone Bay where the boardwalk disintegrates into the pool at the bottom of the dam, the beaver-chewed tree still standing on the trail between McCargoe Cove on the way to East Chickenbone, and the small round rock and jagged root tripping hazards obliterating the Tobin Harbor Trail. I contemplate them, for each has something to share.
To rest, I sit on my pack and eat a snack bar. The squirrels chatter near me. I guess they are greeting me or warning other creatures that I’m there. I marvel at their chubby, short bodies as they scamper up the pine trunks, rustling in the needles. They peel off the outer layers of pinecones, exposing the soft innards. They scamper away with cheeks engorged with fragments of the cones.
There is something to be learned, I think, from the trail along the peak that leads from Todd to Little Todd Harbors. That landscape is interesting for what it presents about who lives there or travels through. To the left and to the right of the trail, the land drops off sharply and dangerously. In this landscape, how the trail is accessed and crossed becomes a conundrum, but the moose pellets affirm that moose pass by. Then from time to time, I see the cross trail descending into the depths of the ravine. Must be a strong creature to come up that way.
When I skipped Little Todd on my Minong Ridge solo, I felt the close ascensions and descensions from the ridge more sharply than ever, having hiked seven miles to get to them. There’s a lake observable from the ridge prior to Lake Desor. It’s like a fantom, making me think the trek from Todd Harbor was that short, but of course it’s not. I raised my eyes to view Sleeping Giant in repose. On the ridges, the sun beats down, so I take more breaks and rigidly conserve my water. In mid-summer, I take three liters, not two, when I hike on the ridges.
At the end of the day, I like sitting at the water. I listen to the loons, the ripples of the water, the wind. I feel the tightness in my legs and shoulders release, still reflecting on the obstacles that I worked around, the view from the ridge while I was sitting on my pack, or even the eagle eating a fish on the point, just at the end of the distance where my eyes can focus. As the sun touches the water, I will drift off into sleep.
After a solo hike, I’m tired, more tired than hiking with Duane. To go it alone, I carry all the gear—the tent, water filters, first aid kit, fuel, pot. Sometimes I go for cold brew coffee and forego the pot and stove. They weigh me down, but cold coffee doesn’t offer the satisfaction I get from hot coffee at sunrise. Hiking alone, I work harder, so I sleep earlier; I start earlier and drag in a little later. But sitting at the water, it makes no difference. When I smell the piney scent of the water of Lake Desor and hear croaks of a pair of sandhill cranes flying over on their way to somewhere, I rest.
Hiking with Duane, we divvy up the gear, but I still turn in earlier than he does. By the time the sun sets and the air cools, I am in my sleeping bag, chatting with him as he sits in his chair outside the tent, or I’m simply listening as he shares his version of the day. It’s comforting to listen, even though I soon don’t hear what he says as I drop off to sleep.
Then in the morning, we sit, watching the sun rise while we drink our instant coffee, mine mixed with protein powder, his so black that I don’t know how he can choke it down. I stow the water filter, the bug dope, my chair, the spare fuel, and clothesline. When I solo, I don’t get a chair and maybe not a stove, depending on my ability to resupply, but I have the tent and the first aid kit as minimal as I can make it. As we pack, we plan for the day. I like the chatter.
And we set out, knowing that we will meet up periodically throughout the day at the crests of the ridges, the trail markers, the moments where we just want to say something to each other, or when we want to match strides to push and glide together, transcending the grunting, grinding effort.
Then there we are, wherever we were going or coming from, leaning back in our chairs, reflecting on the day, separately or together. Eyes rest easy on the water because all trails end at the water. On Isle Royale, there are beginner hikes and advanced hikes, but all hikes are tough. They traverse a rugged, beautiful terrain.