Leaving Huginnin Cove was tough. It really is a beautiful location and my little camp on the east side was perfect. Also, the cove felt like the end of the Minong (even though it's technically a dedicated loop) and is pleasantly isolated. The thought of taking an entire day off to rest from yesterday's brutal hike and stay here was very tempting. One last look over the dim cove and I headed out on a grassy, dew-soaked trail.
I did not sleep great last night. My hands had bugged me until the early morning hours. Both my sister and I had a tendency to get second-degree sunburns on our hands from mowing lawns through our teenage years, and now it seems like using trekking poles yesterday copied the same angle that made them so vulnerable. The burning feeling lasts for a few days, is incredibly painful, and only ice and aloe seem to help. Keeping my hands in the warm sleeping bag wasn't an option last night. I had to keep them outside of the bag and probably looked like a weird manatee.
By five it was obvious that laying in the tent wasn't going to get me any more sleep so I got up, soaked my hands in the cold waters of Lake Superior, and then made breakfast in the dark. I took my time packing up things and wasn't ready until almost seven. Which was fine. If I could make the four miles to Windigo before nine I'd be content.
There really was no place to watch the sunrise around here outside of that hill to the west and I wasn't in the mood to go for an off-trail climb. I walked along the dark, predawn trail, and wondered when I would bump into someone this morning. If anyone was coming out here from Windigo to spend the night they would probably wait until the afternoon, and early starters on the Minong may not waste the mileage to loop out this way. No, if I was going to see someone this morning it probably wouldn't be until I got past Washington Creek.
Light began to filter in through the trees to the east, breaking over the hills and ridges that lay between me in the sun. It felt good. This morning was a bit chilly and the dew was very heavy. My pants, which were slightly damp when I left my camp, were now soaked and clinging to me as I walked. And my boots squelched softly with each step. I hadn't put any bandages on the damaged heels yet, planning on waiting until I reached Windigo, and I felt every step with a little jolt of pain.
Even with the heels and the hands and sore legs and sore shoulders I still felt better than I had yesterday evening so I spent some more time gazing around the trail. It climbed slowly after leaving Huginnin Cove and seemed to follow that little creek up, first on the west side, than the east. The creek, the same one that had flowed down through the camp and next to the path to the site I had stayed at last night, happily bubbled and gurgled below the trail. When it quieted down in a swamp I slowed down and looked around carefully. Would I bump into a moose this early in the morning?
The moose never showed up, though something almost as good did. A small batch of thimbleberries. Now, when I came to Isle Royale I had been hoping to find vast thickets of thimbleberries. There had been nothing ripe. Many of the bushes had been picked clean, though there were some still white and immature, meaning that I had managed to plan this trip between crops. Once I got on the Minong a few showed up here and there, a single berry every few miles, a depressingly low amount. On this trail there was a whole handful waiting within a few yards. I picked a few and continued on, keeping the rest for the next passerby.
Past the thimbleberries the trail seemed to slowly dip back down. That swamp that forms the headwaters of the creek actually empties both ways - some down to Huginnin and some down to Washington Harbor. This was exciting. I thought of a phrase that I often tell Chris, "It's all downhill from here", with a wry smile. That's a naive view of the trail. It actually turns east and climbs a little on the ridges before dropping down to Washington Creek.
I climbed the little ridges, passed a few creeks, rejoined with the Minong Trail, and approached Washington Creek. The white pines along here were massive. Here, here was the old growth that I had been waiting for, out here on the loop trails to Huginnin Cove. I imagine that there had to be more out further west if one was to bushwhack to the rugged end of the island. After the massive white pine was a large bridge over Washington Creek complete with a gaging station. I was getting close to Windigo.
There were no more hills of note, only a mild climb up from the bridge, and I tried to press on with a normal gait. My heels made that difficult. They were mostly okay, slighly tinges of pain on each step, but when my foot turned funny over a root or rock it felt like someone sliced the back of my foot with a razer. I should have done something this morning, should have tried to bandage the area, and instead decided to stubbornly press on and finish this first leg of the hike first.
The trail junction with the Greenstone showed up suddenly and I stopped and looked around. I had reached the end of the Minong Ridge Trail. It took me four days to do it - one to reach Todd Harbor (from Lane Cove), one for Little Todd (the rest day), one for Huginnin Cove (twenty miles), and this morning. And now I was on the Greenstone, soon to be at Windigo, back into a relatively civilized part of the world again. There were no footprints yet, no sign that anyone else had walked either trail this morning, though a few drifts of conversation floated from further ahead on the trail. Maybe an early group was heading out to start east on the Greenstone to Rock Harbor.
No early hikers showed up. Instead, I was close enough to Washington Creek Campground to overhear a loud group waking up and making breakfast. I passed by the campsite, glancing briefly at the camp maps in wonder (they had both running water and a ton of camping spots!). Beyond the campground was a strip of cleared land for sewage treatment, and beyond that was my first view of the harbor itself. Another few minutes of painful walking and I found an open pavilion with a sign for the store. Hello, Windigo.
I still hadn't seen anyone up and moving this morning. There was that loud group, and a few backpacks leaning on tables in the pavilion, but no people. The morning was cool and dim, clouds moving to cover the early sun, and it was close to nine. I dropped my pack near the others and hobbled up the slope towards the store. As I walked my mind spun through the things I wanted to do here - shop, shower, bandage my heels - though I had no idea what order to do things. The store was as good a place as any to start.
When I crested the hill there were three people sitting on the store's porch. Oh hey, I knew these people! There was the guy from Lane Cove, the Madison rock climber, and the mother/daughter pair from the Minong! It was great to see that the Minong pair had made it, that they had survived the last mile into Washington Creek, but I was more surprised to see the Lane Cove guy. Turns out that he was dealing with an ankle injury and, after turning back early from a day trip to Lookout Louise, had returned to Rock Harbor and taken the boat here. Now he was debating on whether or not to do the Feldtmann or Huginnin Loop.
The store opened a few minutes later and I looked around for my items. And found close to nothing. They had Neosporin, matches, and postcards, and nothing else that was on my list. No large bandages, no aloe or Solarcaine, no extra bug spray. I also picked up a shower token and headed down to the ranger station for an official Isle Royale postmark.
While in the station I talked to the ranger on duty, a friendly young lady, about the Feldtmann Loop. I was still harboring some doubts on my route and wanted to know what exactly I was getting into. We chatted for close to fifteen minutes about the Minong and, once she learned that I was also thinking of going to Malone Bay, began to urge me to follow through on the entire thing. The first person to actually support my crazy 130 mile route. I thanked her and headed out with a fresh burst of optimism.
After the station I bounced around quite a bit. I talked to the Madison rock climber, who was doing laundry near the showers, about the Minong Trail. Then I headed down to my pack, re-arranged some gear, and chatted with the mother/daughter pair in the pavilion. When I mentioned my heels and their sad state the mom offered me her extra large bandages. They were leaving shortly, about to return to Minnesota on the Voyageur II, and had no need for them. I graciously thanked them - I only had two in my first-aid pack large enough to cover the back of my heel. Then I returned to the showers, talked with the rock climber about different Midwest hikes and Wisconsin, before actually taking a scalding-hot shower in the cramped facilities.
When I got out of the shower most everyone had left. The rock climber had returned to his campsite and the mother/daughter pair was already on the boat. On the way back down to the pavilion I bumped into another familiar set of faces - the Oscoda couple from Todd Harbor! They were shocked to see that I had survived the Minong Ridge Trail. We chatted briefly before they hurried on, as they had to make the boat today as well. I watched them go with sad eyes. Almost everyone on the island I knew was either leaving today or I had no chance of meeting again. Guess it was time to meet new people.
Between chatting with old friends and making new ones, buying new gear and re-arranging my pack, taking a shower and eating a small lunch, it was close to noon by the time I was ready to go. I had a large bandage with Neosporin on each heel and my least-stinky shirt on. Over the last hour I had watched one group after another head west to start the Feldtmann Loop. Unlike the last few days I would not be the first one down the trail and, depending on how large the next campsite was, now stood a chance of not having a good site to set up on. It was time to get going. I shouldered my pack and headed out.
The path slowly traveled next to Washington Harbor with good views of Beaver Island along the way. It was flat, wide, and easy to cruise along. After the long rest this morning and more than a few encouraging remarks from others I ate up the trail. While I didn't find anything for my hands I had thrown on a pair of gloves which, even as the burns smoldered away underneath, kept them out of any direct or indirect sun.
I was surprised to overtake the first group of day hikers, then another, then even more. While the groups were burdened only by cameras and water bottles they moved slowly and took many breaks, especially when the trail turned and started to climb up to Grace Creek Overlook. Before I even reached the top of the overlook I passed two groups of backpackers as well fresh off the boat. Maybe I wouldn't have to worry about finding a campsite after all.
Even as I passed the backpackers I couldn't help but stop and chat. After all, we were all heading in the same direction and would be camping in the same spot, so I might as well meet them. The first group had thick European accents that I couldn't place and were really hoping on seeing some moose, though they were only staying at Feldtmann Lake for a few nights before turning back to Windigo. The second group looked vaguely familiar, two Wisconsin girls wearing buffs, and it took a while to remember that I had seen them at Lane Cove. They had also taken the boat from Rock Harbor and were planning to finish their trip by doing the full Feldtmann Loop.
At the overlook there was a large cluster of people, all day hikers, resting on different rocks and taking photos of the swamp below. Some of them had binoculars out in hopes to spot moose below on Grace Creek. Beyond the woods there was a dim view of Lake Superior that was hard to discern from the grey skies above. For as sunny and welcoming the morning was things were pretty cloudy now.
The overlook wasn't even halfway to the campsite so I paused only to take some pictures before pushing on. I didn't want to stop for a rest until I reached Grace Creek, a spot that probably offered water to filter. Beyond the overlook the trail slowly dipped and bucked on the ridgeline before dropping into an pleasant open forest. Mostly pleasant, anyways. The trail ran over loose cobble rock, most likely the remains of a larger Lake Superior, and the rock slithered underfoot to create unsteady trekking conditions.
While booking forward on this stretch I passed two brothers from the Twin Cities. They were also heading to the next campground and I began to worry about how much room it had. Feldtmann Lake had five individual sites and two group sites, and so far I had passed three groups heading that way. There had to be at least just as many still ahead. A short distance past the brothers was Grace Creek. Too worried about a full campground I decided to skip this stop and ration my remaining water.
Along the boardwalk of Grace Creek I saw an interesting piece of litter - an Angels baseball camp. The name 'Zack' was printed awkwardly on it. I scooped it up and attached it to the outside of my pack.
For the next mile or so the trail eased up, a dirt path through a young forest surrounded by low growth. A few small clearings were even placed along the path where large logs and an open space invited hikers to sit and rest for a while. I just kept going. My legs were getting a bit heavy but my heels were doing fine. No real reason to stop at a place without a source of water.
When the trail bent southward the surroundings began to change. I was on the cobbly stuff again, that annoying slittery rock, which served like a railroad grade to the surrounding swamp. Five to ten feet below on either side was soft ground and pools of water. As tricky as the cobble underfoot was it beat trying to go through that stuff. A few views opened up that, if the clouds let up, would have given me views of Lake Superior in the distance.
Then the overgrown stuff started. Thimbleberry bushes and other spiny plants reached arms out over the trail, pretty flowers with bustling bees hung low, and the dirt path itself disappeared under layers of green. The woods opened up around me and, even with the cloudy skies, I felt the eyeless sun bear down and heat the land with an angry stare. So this is what the ranger warned about, this section of overgrowth.
The way itself was easy to pick out, an indented line of disturbed growth that slowly climbed a gradual slope in a mostly straight line. I held my poles in a 'V' shape ahead of me and plowed through. I pretended that the poles helped more than they hindered here. They were completely useless as poles and only mildy helpful to push stuff off to the side. It had been close to three hours now, three hours and eight miles since my last break and water fill up at Windigo, and I was really getting tired of this trail.
With little fanfare a camp map showed up next to the trail and pointed me to a spur loop to the right. Oh, guess I was at Feldtmann Lake. I bumbled down, checking out the group sites first, and then passing through individual sites. Only a single group was already here at Site 2, easily the largest and best individual site, and after a brief conversation I turned and claimed Site 5. It wasn't next to water but it did have a wide clearing to air out my damp clothes.
After taking care of a stomach ache that had been growing over the last hour I ventured around. It wasn't until now that I realized that my streak was broken. Feldtmann Lake Campground was not near Lake Superior. I totally missed that fact when I planned on my route. Rainbow Cove on Superior was barely accessible down a .8 mile spur. If I couldn't sleep next to it the least I could do is go for a swim. I hurried through setting up my camp, laying out things to hopefully dry in the humid air, and then changed into sandals to let my feet breathe before heading down the spur trail. Oh, and the band-aids worked perfect. The heels had no additional damage to them.
On the way I passed by the couple from Site 2 who had just been down the spur to Rainbow Cove. They warned me about a large cluster of yellow flowers swarming with bees along the trail and also told me where to look to find wild peas. I thanked them and headed out. I was not prepared for the hike out. I had on sandals, shorts (converted pants), and a simple shirt, with towel, water, and trail journal in tow. I planned on going for a quick swim and then relaxing on the beach to write up notes. The trail was overgrown, brush and grass slicing deeply into my legs and feet, and by the time I stumbled through the yellow flowers blood was flowing. At least it wasn't from my heels.
I followed the cobble beach down, filtered a liter of cold Lake Superior water, and then settled down to write trail notes. Biting flies had other plans. I swatted away a half dozen before realizing that this wasn't going to work. After a quick swim/bath (the water was freezing) and towel-off I packed up my stuff to face the overgrown path a second time. When I finally returned to camp any sort of relaxation I had hoped to have this afternoon had dissipated in a cloud of biting flies, bees, and the tough trail.
The rest of the evening floated past. More of the backpackers I had passed on the way out trickled in and claimed sites. I talked more with the couple at Site 2, learning that they were regular backpackers and did two or three trips like this a year, and also talked with the brothers from the Twin Cities. Dinner came and went, I repacked my semi-damp clothes from before, and soon the sun was starting to set. No part of me felt like heading back down that nasty trail to Rainbow Cove to watch the sunset so I forced myself to be content with the brightly lit clouds over Feldtmann Lake.
After the sunset I figured there wasn't much left to do except filter some water and go to sleep. As I was pumping water, perched awkwardly on a small log to avoid getting my sandals wet, there was a large foot pound behind me. I whirled around and was within ten feet of a moose. She stood high above me, right on the trail through camp, blocking my way back to the tent or to anyone else here. With little other option I loudly asked her to move and she did, trotting away to the right.
Heart pumping I gathered my water filter and headed back to the trail only to see a second moose on the left. Great - I had a moose on either side of me and was armed with only a water bottle and a filter. I quickly stepped forward towards my tent to grab my camera. When I turned around thirty seconds later they were both gone.
Camera now in hand I jogged down to the next site where the brothers from the Twin Cities had set up. They hadn't seen or heard anything but very much wanted to. The three of us headed towards the group sites, where I assumed the moose had gone, and found them at Site 1. They were just barely visible in the post-sunset dusk, too dark for photos, and we decided to let them be.
When I returned to my tent a rabbit sat munching on grass, oblivious to my presence until I was on top of it. Unsure if a rabbit would chew through my tent to get to my food I scared it away. At least I got a few pictures of this animal. After the exciting moose (and rabbit) visits I wandered down through the campsite, telling the story to a few other groups who were still awake, and then we all saw both moose further north on the shoreline munching on lake growth. They were comfortably distant now, silhouettes against the pale waters, yet the thought of them marching through our little campground trail a mere twenty minutes ago was still scary and exciting.
By the time I got to bed it was quite dark out and I was pretty tired. It had been a long and surprisingly social day. I was very happy that I had decided to do the Feldtmann Loop. My hands still ached and my heels were in bad shape but I was dealing with them. And I had met a lot of interesting people today, and even had some close encounters with the moose kind. Malone Bay was still an option to cut some mileage off, something I could decide on over the next two days if my body was up to it. Today had been okay, and tomorrow would be even easier, and too soon I'd be truly on my way back to Rock Harbor.