On Isle Royale
Maybe it’s buggy in June. Maybe not. In the earliest parts of June, it’s not likely to be buggy, but as the season progresses and the weather warms, the breeding season for mosquitoes and other bugs comes into full swing. Are the bugs bad in July? June, September, August? Everyone asks this question at one time or another, and later, much later, they come to realize the futility of asking in advance.
Take Duane’s and my hike into Malone Bay at the end of June in 2017. We hike in late June each summer and extend through the Fourth of July. The peace of Isle Royale is preferable to the hubbub of the Independence Day holiday, especially for Duane who is a multiple tour combat vet.
In June 2017, we planned to hike from Rock Harbor into Malone Bay, hop on the Voyageur to Windigo to visit friends and then to hike back along the Greenstone Ridge Trail. (At that time, we liked doing the Minong Ridge Trail in the other direction.) We made this plan avoid having to hike back up the Ishpeming Tower out of Malone Bay, as we knew it was a climb. Instead, we planned the hike out of Windigo, the steady up to Island Mine. Regardless which way you go, you will climb the ridge.
After permitting, we had an easy hike into Three-Mile campground, so we set up camp and then scampered the couple miles up onto the ridge to catch the views from Mt. Franklin. Stunning! That evening, we enjoyed the sunset on Lake Superior. We did find the mosquitoes a little pesky, but not that bad, at least no worse than we expected. The next day, our hike past Daisy Farm an on to West Chickenbone Campground was also routine. We did need our mosquito dope as we sat out that evening, enjoying the stars and quiet, broken only by loons laughter and moose calls.
Hatchet Lake also had a fair amount of bugs, but nothing out of the ordinary. I chose to try my mosquito net to reduce the need to swat, but I felt choked in my own dense, moist breath. It’s not like we were being picked up and hauled away or anything, so I took it off. We just had to use the Deet, with the 100% on our clothing and the lesser strength on our exposed skin. When we packed up in the morning, we started by applying Deet to our clothing and skin and then set out toward Malone Bay.
On the ridge, there was no issue, as the baking warmth on the rocks tends to subdue the biters, and the exposure allows for wind to disburse them. It was relatively pleasant hiking for the first five miles coming off the ridge until we began our trek alongside Siskiwit Lake for the last three miles. I could hear Duane swatting and complaining behind me as we neared the water. Nearer the water, the complaints gave way to muttered expletives from time to time.
I am from the old school that says flailing draws more attention from the bugs, so I was quiet in my discomfort, and I brushed the feasting hoards from any exposed skin silently. As I brushed my hands across my face and neck, I could feel the crushing of affixed insects bodies. I did not want to think about the density of the cloud that swarmed about my head, nor did I contemplate the blood on my hands as I crushed the biting mosquitoes. Most of the rest of me was covered with clothing doused in Deet. I did discover, though, that I needed to apply Deet to my leggings as mosquitos bite right through them.
Behind me, I could hear Duane swatting. “There is a cloud over you,” he exclaimed. My brain retorted, “as if I don’t know,” but my lips remained closed.
I did not want to turn to look at him, not because I was trying to avoid a strong retort, but because I didn’t want visible confirmation of what I knew to be the truth of the density of the swarming hoards. “Maybe they won’t know we are here if we don’t flail,” I said. My tone spoke futility.
Flailing and swearing continued behind me, so he either didn’t hear or didn’t care to respond. Clearly, he felt beating back the biters was the thing to do, although we both knew it wasn’t very effective.
From time to time, we stopped to reapply Deet, which seemed to dissuade them a little, like it was like steak sauce that they didn’t particularly like, but we were really tasty filet mignon. On that last mile, we were very nearly running toward the campground.
At the end of the Ishpeming Trail going to Malone Bay, we left the Lake Siskiwit shoreline and climbed a small hill. At the crest, we were hit by a steady, cold breeze off Lake Superior. Simultaneously, the bugs were gone. Our pace dropped to normal, and we found an open shelter facing the water.
By the time we were stopped in Malone Bay, we were out of mosquito dope and realized that we would have to resupply in Windigo. That evening, though, we enjoyed a bug-free evening in our puffy coats in the onshore breeze–without reapplying.
The next morning, we were pleased to catch the Voyageur and head into Windigo to spend the night, get a shower, and wash off the layers of mosquito dope before we would repeatedly apply it again as we hiked back to Rock Harbor.
On Lake Superior, Windigo turned out to be cool and pleasant, so we enjoyed time visiting with other hikers in the light breeze on the deck at the store. There are always so many hikers sharing stories and sometimes one-upping each other with tall tales. We had such a great time at least partially because the coolness and the light breeze seemed to dispel the bugs.
In the morning, as we always do, we were up at first light to get back on the trail. We hiked quickly up the six miles, stopping occasionally to catch our breath. That evening in Island Mine, I asked Duane for the Deet wipes, as the bugs were coming out again and I wanted to enjoy sitting by the fire. Island Mine is one of the few campgrounds with individual fire rings.
“I thought you had it,” he replied.
“I thought you did.”
Our eyes met as the realization hit us both simultaneously. We did not have enough days left in our hike to go back to Windigo and climb back out, and still meet our boat in Rock Harbor.
I dug around in my pack for the mosquito net that I had tried and set aside earlier, thankful for an alternate. Shedding the leggings, I donned to my hiking pants to prevent my legs from being bit. That evening, we did enjoy the smokey fire, both for its ambiance and its contribution to repelling the bugs.
But the level of bugs is not consistent from season to season. In 2019, we did the Minong Ridge Trail over the Fourth of July holiday, and the weather was pleasantly cool. We didn’t suffer from a single bite, and the Minong Ridge Trail crosses multiple beaver dams and swamps, so there are many suitable breeding areas. However, the cool temperatures are not optimal for the life cycle of a mosquito.
I think it’s safe to say that the bugs can be bad in June and July, August and September. Bugs are bad a week or two after a rain that occurs in warm weather which allows mosquitoes and other biting insects to breed. If there isn’t a hard frost to kill them, you can be sure there will be bugs, regardless of the month. Bugs are governed by weather, not by which month it is. Now, we always go prepared for bad bugs–we are sometimes pleasantly surprised when there are few.
Check us out at Wise Old Man of Isle Royale for questions. We offer guide services to Isle Royale, but you don’t have to book with us to get answers to your questions. We are happy to help you plan for a safe and appropriately equipped hike on Isle Royale.