Of Backpacking Isle Royale through the Lens of Another’s Eyes
From the 9th through the 15 of September, Michelle, Duane, and I backpacked Isle Royale to some new realizations. As with all hikes, Duane and I had expectations and routines, but each person who hikes with us offers new insights simply because of their unique perspective and focus regarding what they want to see and experience. Each person who visits Isle Royale creates an adventure of their own and views the island through the lens of their own expectations.
That lens influences the tint of the lenses through which Duane and I view that hallowed ground. Michelle’s lens was one informed by a quest to see a moose. Previously, she had been to Alaska to view moose, at least in part, but she was the only one in her group who seemed to just miss each opportunity to see one.
This early fall–with temperatures in the mid-thirties at night–we felt the change in the air, the island waning past full bloom toward the closing of the season. The shifting seasons frosted the leaves of thimbleberry bushes, accelerated those berries on the ripe side of maturity and stunted the blossoming of the rawest of berries that will eventually dry up on the bush.
Nearby, the chokecherries, so sour and tart in late August, now tasted of fermentation, as though they were creating a dry, deep red wine on the branch. The late season sugar plums were crusted raisins on the branch. Juniper berries at their fullest hinted at the full body of gin they might distill, perhaps an ice variety as they are frosted with each dawn.
Our schedule had us land in Rock Harbor and catch a hop on the Voyageur II to Chippewa Harbor. From there, we would hike our way back to Rock Harbor to catch our departure boat. Because we had extra time, we took side trips to Lake Richie and chose to go up to the Ojibway Tower and over to Mt. Franklin, rather than staying along the shore from Daisy Farm to Three Mile Campground. There was no rush.
The rodents abounded on this trip, perhaps more so because of Michelle’s notice of them. As we continued her quest to view a moose, in jest she asked the critters we passed if indeed they had seen Bullwinkle or any of his moose friends as they went about their squirrel business. They did not reply, of course, continuing to eat mushrooms and pine cones as well as other vegetation in the forest. She inquired, too, of the grey jays who prospected for booty and of the king fishers we watched dive into Lake Mason.
On our planned route, we hiked slowly, scanning the underbrush for moose that might be foraging the forest floor while Duane sprinted ahead to find our campsite for the coming evening. Michelle and I noted orchids, berries, apple trees, and other vegetation as we continued our methodical hike that afforded consistent opportunities to scan for moose.
As we scoured the shores at Chippewa Harbor with penetrating vision, we saw a family of otters swimming along the far shore. They seem to reside under the dock.
While we sat and observed our surroundings at Lake Mason one afternoon, awaiting a grazing moose, we watched flying creatures. There were dragon flies and grasshoppers, cedar waxwings and king fishers, as well as eagles, herring gulls, peregrine falcons, and goshawks. There were crows and ravens. In lieu of seeing a moose, we watched a king fisher peer into the still water and dive again and again to emerge with minnows in its beak. Its splash interrupted the placid scene momentarily.
Later, at the far end of Lake Richie, we saw a trumpeter swan floating in the water and eating from the sandy lake floor. When it realized we were watching, it emitted a flurry of wing beats as it arose from the water and settled to feed again at the far end of the lake.
Sand hill cranes rattled throughout the day, arranging themselves for their imminent departure from the island that fall. Canadian geese flocked up and flew practice flight patterns, while the mergansers shepherded their remaining chicks along the shoreline. Loons called plaintively from here and there on the lake.
Throughout the trip, black and red foxes entertained us. At Daisy Farm, we saw one red fox prancing nearby. It marked a tuft of mature grass at a juncture in the trail with its scent. Doglike, it roughed up the ground with his hind feet and urinated on a particular clump of grass. Awhile later, the second red fox sniffed the clump and rubbed his face in it; as though to eradicate the odor of the first, he, too, roughed up the ground and urinated on the same clump. Then he rolled in it with some vigor. He repeated the ritual of roughing the grass and urinating again prior to another vigorous bout of rolling. Then it sprang to its feet and flounced off, tail bouncing straight out behind it.
The black fox flounced with as much aplomb as the red, but its focus was to search for food, both at every picnic table–empty or not–and amid the weeds and grass alongside the trail. As we watched, it focused intently on a specific bush, apparently waiting for a squirrel or mouse to reveal itself. Its tail was tipped in white. As others approached, he trotted toward us. We froze in place, cameras filming, as he flounced on by. He was so close that we could see the individual and very white teeth in his mouth as he hurried past.
On one trail, the muddy sections were obliterated by wolf prints heading in both directions. They were so clear, we could see the impression of the claws on each toe. On his early trek through, Duane noted them, taking particular care not to step on them so that they were preserved for Michelle and I who followed a little behind. At our slightly slower pace, we noted the prints and glanced about periodically, and a little apprehensively, but still hoping to see the wolves who created them, as we progressed on our quest to see a moose.
Were these prints the result of wolves traveling in groups, or were the wolves simply going solo and often on this muddy trail in mid-September, we wondered. Then, as we stepped gingerly around yet another patch of wolf prints, we saw it.
We turned a corner and about 20 feet from us, a single grey wolf trotted toward us with its eyes on the trail in front of it.
Startled, I stopped in my tracks. It kept coming, intent on its object; whatever it was, I did not know.
“Ooooh, ooooh,” I murmured. It was 15 feet in front of me.
At 12 feet away, it raised its eyes to meet mine, startled, too. Later, Michelle noted that the wolf and I both looked surprised to encounter one another.
For a moment, the adult grey wolf appeared to think about what it should do. It was ten feet away. Then it stepped to my left, off the trail. It paused in indecision. I did, too, watching it.
I noted its blue ear tag.
The wolf retreated the way it came and disappeared behind a bush further to my left, making its way around us and on to where it was going. We did not manage to get our phones out in time for photos.
Michelle and I exchanged glances. We continued a few feet down the trail and then decided to sit for a moment in the event that another grey wolf intent on its destination would pass by our resting spot on the trunk of a birch tree on the side of the trail.
Michelle did not ask the wolf if it had seen a moose. I imagine she didn’t want it to have seen one. Even the thought suggested an unsettling image.
At Moskey Basin, we filmed a beaver eating small ground cover near the shelter. Once it had eaten its fill, it cut off and collected together a bunch of branches from a thimbleberry bush and made off with them in its mouth, its flat tail extending behind as it swam toward its hut.
From Chippewa Harbor, to Lake Richie, to Moskey Basin, to Daisy Farm, to the Ojibway Tower and Mt. Franklin, to Three Mile campground, we searched for moose and saw none. We hiked 30 miles seeing all manner of wildlife, but nary a moose.
On the second to the last day, we arose at dawn to meet the Voyageur II at Rock Harbor prior to its departure. We were fetching the resupply box we’d sent to reduce pack weight for the start of the hike. We also added extra supplies in the event our passage back to Copper Harbor via the Queen IV was delayed due to weather.
As we set out, the air was crisp with cold, and bright stars were sprinkled liberally across the dark sky. We hiked at a reasonable pace in our headlamps, keeping close watch right and left for that elusive moose.
A mile out of Three Mile Campground, Duane saw a small bull; Michelle and I heard its grunt, but we did not see it. Does a grunt count as “seeing” a moose? We hoped that this encounter would not be the only one Michelle had with the object of her quest.
To extend the possibility of actually seeing a moose, Michelle slowed her pace. We continued, as we had for several days, hiking slowly and scanning the woods. Duane got a little ahead because we had slowed our pace.
At about a mile and a half from Rock Harbor, Michelle and I rounded a curve in the trail to discover Duane motioning to us. There stood the cow and her two calves grazing just off the trail. Michelle pulled out her camera and filmed them as they grazed unperturbed. We stood for several minutes while Duane continued on to retrieve our resupply box.
Once the three moose disappeared from our view, Michelle and I resumed our trek into Rock Harbor to discover Duane’s pack dropped near a campsite marker. We stopped and prepared to set up camp as Duane reappeared with the resupply box.
With no need to hurry in setting up, Michelle hiked out with a day pack to see if she could find the cow and her twin calves on their way into Rock Harbor. We suspected that the cow was headed toward the peninsula behind the Lodge where she had sheltered with her young throughout the summer.
Michelle found them on the Tobin Harbor Trail. At first, she saw only the twin calves. One was walking directly toward her with its ears flopping about like a snowshoe hare, so she backed away. Then she saw the cow to her right. She took cover behind a tree and continued to film. The cow continued to graze unperturbed by Michelle’s presence.
After a couple hours, Michelle returned to camp with extended video of the cow and her calves. Not only did she fulfill her own goals for the trip, she topped them by making a thorough record of that success.
Through the excursion, Michelle accomplished her goals and more for seeing that elusive moose. In doing so, she fulfilled Duane’s and my expectations for the excursion. What she saw for the first time, Duane and I saw anew. As each of us emerged from the darkness into the frosty dawn, stargazing and reflecting, each one was made different by the adventure we had shared together.