Isle Royale, Day 6: Sunrise from Feldtmann Ridge
Bright moonlight shone down over Feldtmann Lake and reflected off its glassy surface. I stood here for only a minute, packed and ready to move, before quietly making my way down the path. To return to the main trail I had to walk past every other campsite and I didn't want to wake anyone else up. When the junction finally showed up I switched my headlamp on and quickly followed it to the outlet creek.
There were a few good reasons for being up so early. First, I really wanted to watch the sunrise from Feldtmann Ridge. I hadn't had much luck with sunrises so far on the island and wanted to get at least one amazing daybreak. Second was the campsite I was heading to. Feldtmann Lake was a downright mediocre campsite. There were no tables or benches, the sites were small and cramped, and access to Lake Superior was down an overgrown spur trail a mile long. Siskiwit Bay was on Superior, promised firepits, and even had a few shelters. And I really wanted to secure one of those shelters.
The day would be fairly simple. I would leave by five in the morning and hike up the 4.8 miles to the lookout tower on the ridge by seven-ish. The sunrise would wait for me, be amazing, and I'd stick around for a bit and make breakfast. An easy downhill jaunt of 5.4 miles and Siskiwit Bay no later than ten. Plenty of time to rest, do laundry, and let all my gear dry out before the next few days. The next few days would be grueling. Today, today was a rest day, even if a rest day meant breaking camp hours before sunrise.
Before any of that started I needed water. I polished off the rest of the liter from last night's moose-flavored encounter and stepped out onto a wooden bridge over Feldtmann Lake's outflow creek. The creek wasn't as big as I had hoped, only a few swampy feet wide , though it was deep (or murky) enough to swallow my light. Deep (or murky) enough to pump from. I plopped down and filtered some, drank, and then topped off my liter. It was time to hit the dark trail in earnest.
Most of the first hour was boring. At least it was easy. Spiderwebs collected on my face and body, just as they did on every other trail that I was the first hiker on, and the forest faded away to creepy darkness on either side. Every once in a while I caught a glimpse of white to my left, though I couldn't tell if they were views of the inland lake or just my breath catching the light. The path was a mix of cobble rock and hard dirt path and was easy to trace, none of that overgrown brush I had to deal with from yesterday.
When the trail took a steep uphill clip I got hopeful. Was I already climbing up the ridge? It was still very dark out so I had to be making good time. I booked it, feeling energized by the relatively low mileage of yesterday and the crisp morning air, and didn't stop until I came upon a open grassy knob. You never realize how comforting the closeness of nighttime woods can be until you have to cross a half-lit grassy plain surrounded by deep shadows.
I crossed the grassy clearing slowly and pretended to braver than I felt when it re-entered a cluster of dark pines. The path weaved around, making it hard to follow, yet I could tell that I was close to a steep cliff. Which was not a comforting thought. I broke out of the cluster and swung out onto a bare rock knob perched hundreds of feet above the forest below. This, this was a view.
Color was beginning to taint the eastern skies. More interesting, though, was the deep cloud of white fog hiding the Big Siskiwit River swamps. It reached out from Lake Superior in the east and formed a false cove that almost reached Feldtmann Lake. With a bit deeper of a reach it would have turned Feldtmann Ridge into a separate island. Which it probably was at some point in Isle Royale's past, with the obvious elevation hints and cobble beaches I had been walking on.
Thinking that I had to be close to the lookout tower I turned and continued along the path, following the cliff edge from a more comfortable dozen yards away, and thought about how awesome that shelter was going to be. I had only seen a few at McCargoe and the one at Todd Harbor and was only vaguely aware of what the inside looked like. Maybe they had bunk beds and running water and a shower. More probable was a wooden floor and plenty of headroom, which was still a luxury after the last five days in my tiny little tent. A luxury that I hoped my early start would earn me. If someone was coming down from Island Mine, a mere four miles up the Greenstone, they could easily beat me to Siskiwit Bay and the shelters without such a ridiculously early start.
As my mind drifted I left the open grass, re-entered the woods, and then came upon a second grassy ridge. This was one was much skinnier and had dark forests fencing me on in both sides. Feeling uncomfortable being so exposed again I tried to walk quickly, looking forward to the lookout tower or being back in the woods, when a sudden burst of noise erupted to the left. Another moose, startling up a few dozen yards off trail, who I had just woken. A predawn meeting with the fifth moose of the trip.
With a few low shouts and clanks of my poles I waited to hear it either storm towards or away from me. I couldn't make out anything but a suspicious dark shape in the same direction that was either a huge animal or weird bush. After a few quiet minutes I took careful steps forward and, after confirming that the shape wasn't doing anything, set a nervous pace. It was pretty darn unnerving that there was a moose so close and it wasn't scared enough of me to run further into the woods.
Beyond the encounter was a small swamp that poured over a tiny, dark waterfall and crossed the trail. This was mildly confusing. I was supposed to be on a ridge, high above the lowlands below, yet there appeared to be enough sitting up here to support a busy little creek. Shrugging it off to weird geology I continued past and ended up back in a dark forest along a hard dirt path. Even as the path began to climb again between dark trees I decided not to pause for breath. If I stopped I would listen for sounds, and if I heard sounds I would probably think they were moose, and that would just let my cranked-up imagination go nuts. If a moose was going to charge at me through the underbrush this morning I'd hear it well enough.
The forest went on and on while the sky slowly lightened. I really expected to be at the tower by now. Whether or not my early start would be enough to catch the sunrise was something that seemed increasingly uncertain. Trying to hit a pace that would cover five miles over two hours may have been too ambitious for the dark trail. When I finally broke free of the morning woods and came out onto a grassy clearing I looked around in hope, trying to find a tower or a view to the east or anything, but there was nothing to find. I couldn't even tell if the sun had broke the horizon. Just another grassy clearing under a light-blue sky.
Maybe there was no lookout tower. I headed forwards anyways, soon climbing a sudden hill through the green forest, wondering if I should stop for breakfast at the next grassy clearing. When the hill crested I gaped at the low silhouette mixed with the tree tops ahead before rushing forward. It was the tower, still dark and unlit by any sun. I had made it, had beat the sunrise to Feldtmann Lookout Tower.
There was no time to waste. The trail led me to the base of the tower, I dropped my pack on the ground, and the stairs wound me back and forth to a small landing below the observation deck. Like the tower at Mount Ojibway the deck itself was locked off. I didn't care. An amazing view was unfolding far out to the east beyond Houghton Ridge.
I had made it, but only just in time. The sun was still touching the horizon by the time I freed my camera and snapped a few shots. A few seconds later and it broke free and started its slow journey across the sky. My first real sunrise from Isle Royale without fog or clouds to hide it away. I shivered as a cool breeze drifted over my sweaty shirt and looked around at the rest of the island.
Sherbert hues lay over Greenstone Ridge reaching east, though I could barely make any of the individual rises from this distance. Red Oak Ridge was somewhere over there, confounding my view, though I had a decent guess at which hazy bump was Mount Desor. The shoreline was easier to make out, with Hay Bay making a narrow finger and Wright Island helping to define Malone Bay. Ah, Malone Bay, my fantasy destination for tomorrow, looking so close to Siskiwit Bay and yet a long twenty miles hike through the interior of Isle Royale.
Behind me was even more obvious. Feldtmann Lake lay back there, with the first ridge of the morning sticking up weirdly against it, and Washington Island marking the southern end of Washington Harbor beyond. It looked so far away from here. Feldtmann Lake had seemed huge from the campsite, reaching a long ways east from our little shore even though it's barely a mile long. All of my fellow campers from last night were probably still sleeping and would have a long hike to get to this tower. I took another look around, noting that there was no hint of the Upper Peninsula to the south, before heading down to make breakfast.
Enough sweat had dried off by now for me to snuggle into my down jacket. Oatmeal and coffee used up half of my water and I left the rest for the hike down. Walking ten miles in the mild, if humid, Midwest temperatures on a liter of water wasn't too rough, though using up half of it for breakfast would make things a bit dry. Maybe there would be another little swamp and creek to cross on the way down. As I sipped my hot coffee I thought briefly of jotting down some notes in my trail journal and decided to push that task off. I really wanted to get to the next campsite by ten.
I made one last climb up the tower while spooning hot-hot oatmeal down to get a second glimpse of the rising sun over Houghton Ridge. It looked fantastic. And, in some ways, it made me feel like my trip was almost over. All I had to do was walk back to Rock Harbor from here, follow the shoreline and trails some forty-odd miles east over the next three days. Well, forty-odd miles if I went by the most direct routes, which wasn't the plan.
Descending the tower with rested legs I packed my jacket and gear back up in a rush and headed out. This had been a nice break. With the predawn start and this breakfast pause I now felt like I was heading out on a fresh start. My heels were only minor irritants and the sunburn on my hands had not hurt at all in the cool morning air. Just to be safe I had pulled on my gloves before leaving the tower to block them from early rays of sunshine. Little did I know that the gloves would be helpful for a more immediate obstacle within the hour.
After one last quick buck and grassy clearing that took me past the remains of an old cabin and fire tower the trail began a slow drop down the side of Coyote Ridge. There were a few openings here and there but it seemed like my time on the exposed ridge would be coming to an end. As I headed down I thought back to the ranger at Windigo and what she had told me about the Feldtmann Loop. She had warned me about two overgrown sections of trail, one between Grace Creek and Feldtmann Lake and the one coming up on the way to Siskiwit. Yesterdays section had been annoying, waist-high thorny stuff that tangled up my poles and all but hid the trail, so I didn't expect anything too much worse for today.
Soon enough I was walking through a gently sloping open forest, looking for all the world like a heavily logged section with a few lonely trees surrounded by nasty brush, and then a little pine forest. This wasn't bad at all. When brush did get close to the path it was sopping wet, remains of that thick cloud I had seen earlier this morning, yet it politely stayed back for the most part. At the end of the pine forest the trail made a sharp turn to the right and entered into an overgrown jungle of a swamp.
It started with tall grass hanging heavily over the trail, at times reaching up to my shoulders and other times sweeping low across the path. Either way it quickly soaked through both my shirt and boots. Intermixed with the grass were berry bushes emptied of fruit yet still green and leafy enough to hold onto plenty of dew. And then the real fun showed up, the woody brush that formed a wall of wet growth ten feet high that I had to force my way through. If it wasn't for the well-trod dirt path underneath finding a way through this mess would have been impossible.
More than once I thought of hauling out my poncho. See, there was one smart decision I made this morning. After a few early hikes through the Isle Royale dew I had learned that my normal pants were useless. So today I was wearing my rain pants which, while not very breathable, were doing a great job at keeping the cold dew off my legs and at least tried to keep my boots dry. My shirt and gloves, on the other hand, were heavy and soaked within twenty minutes.
The poncho probably wouldn't have done well. This woody brush was painfully sharp and jabbed at me from all sides. Something as clumsy as a poncho would just have gotten my tangled in this mess. The shirt and gloves, while soaked, were at least protecting me from countless scratches. Scratches on my already badly-burnt hands were not something I wanted to deal with.
There were a few breaks on the trail, a few yards here and there where the brush descending to knee height and offered me a chance to look around at the woods and swamp surrounding me. Then it was back to the towering walls of green like a drowning man slipping back under the waves. I fought and pushed my way forward, trying to use poles to lever stuff out of the way, pulling them behind when it got too bad, and wondering if any nearby moose were laughing at my clamorous passage.
It took over an hour and a half before things finally eased up. I paused, took a step to steady myself, watched my right leg disappear into a fake floor of grass, and tumbled backwards onto the trail. A graceful way to take a break. Sprawled out I looked back and realized that my path had been arrow-straight since leaving the little pine forest below Coyote Ridge. This had to have been a road at one time.
There was a logging camp at the bay ahead that probably built this road to access the inland forests. That logging camp was responsible for cutting down large swaths of land on the southern side of Isle Royale as well as starting a fire that burned all the way to Moskey Basin. I wondered how long it would take a decent stand to take over where all that destruction took place. Maybe my great-great-grandkids would be able to hike here one day and walk under giant pines along the Feldtmann Loop and not have to deal with this swampy, overgrown mess.
Swishing grass sounded behind me and I awkwardly stood up. A lone man was coming up the trail looking chipper and experienced. We talked briefly - while it was nice to meet a fellow solo hiker he was very much focused on hunting rocks at Rainbow Cove and there was only so much I could help him with that. I warned him of the hell he was about to enter and he informed me that the trail up to Island Mine was also terribly overgrown. Awesome. At least he had left Siskiwit Bay a mere thirty minutes ago.
Twenty minutes later and I was walking along a grassy rise within a stone's throw of Lake Superior. The sun and open air felt great on my wet clothes, though my hands were angry within steamy black gloves. With long, happy strides I swung up to the first shelter within sight and, not seeing anyone else here yet, plopped down my pack. Shelter secured. Tonight I would be sleeping in style.
Water seemed like a good start. I grabbed my filter and bottle and headed down to the dock where two young kids sat on a picnic table. Unsure of their age I ambled up to them and started chatting, though it was pretty obvious after a few minutes that they were far too young to be out here alone. Instantly feeling awkward talking to a pair of preteens I looked around for their parents and waved at the mom a short distance down the beach. After that we had a great chat about the otters that lived under the dock, the tough walk through the brush that I had just walked through today and they yesterday, and how far down the beach they had walked last night.
I bid them good-bye and headed over to clean my filter, which had gotten clogged at the Feldtmann Lake outlet creek, and quickly filtered and drank a few liters. I then slowly headed back to my shelter and unpacked every last piece of gear I had. This was my last rest day before the final push to Rock Harbor and probably the last chance I had to get stuff completely dry. It was time to air out the tent, to turn my compression sacks inside-out, to sort out food and compress trash.
While I was going through the gear I bumped into the hat I found yesterday, the baseball cap from Grace Creek with the name 'Zack' printed on it. Curious I walked back down to the dock where the family was pulling on packs and getting ready to walk to Island Mine. Sure enough, the hat belonged to the young boy. The early morning hike had given me enough time to catch up with him and return his hat, an unexpected benefit to the night hiking.
They left and I was alone at Siskiwit Bay. I slowly continued going through my gear, sorting and laying out things, inspecting my heels and hands, and preparing for the next few long days. A few things got washed, socks and shirts and boxers, though it was obvious by now that nothing could help my shirts. They were synthetic running shirts, brightly colored and long sleeve, and the few days of sweat collected on them smelled like death. Wool socks, and even my boxer briefs, smelled mildly better after rinsing out, but those shirts were something else.
Around two another group showed up, at least seven older people coming down from Island Mine, and we chatted about that trail for some time. They confirmed that it was quite overgrown and, even though they had waited until noon to leave camp, heavy dew was still a problem. I warned them of the trail to Feldtmann Lake and let them relax at their group site. They were a bit noisy setting up with so many people and I didn't mind. It was nice to hear voices again.
My hands were hurting pretty bad by now in the warming afternoon air. There was so much to do around camp, so much handling and wringing and moving things around, and every time I used my hands a fresh wave of pain would wash over me. There was nothing in my first aid kit for this, no cream or anything. Then I noticed that the sunscreen had aloe in it. A few layers later in the burning subsided to a dull ache.
The first group from Feldtmann Lake showed up around four. They must have gotten a really late start over there. As they came in I headed down to welcome them, sharing about the tough hike and suggesting different campsites, feeling all the world like a camp gossip. Only one of the groups looked truly rough, straggling into camp with tired eyes, and I was happy to see them secure the other shelter. The campsite continued to fill up and I couldn't have been happier seeing all the familiar faces.
When six rolled around I started closing camp. Most of my clothes were dry from either hanging on the line or cooking on the hot shelter roof. I packed up things and moved everything into the shelter. It was pretty plain in there, three wooden and one screen wall with a few hooks here and there, but it was tall enough for me to stand without ducking and had way more room than my little Scheel's tent. Little luxuries.
After my gear was packed away for the night I wandered down to talk to a few other groups hanging out at the docks. The sun would soon be setting over the forest in the west and I was hoping for a little companionship. Plus I was starting to worry about the weather. With the exception of that little shower on the Minong there had been no storms or rain to slow me down, though someone at Windigo had told me that there was a good chance of thunderstorms on Sunday. If I went to Malone Bay tomorrow then things were set - I would have to hike at least twelve miles before noon to reach the boat out of Rock Harbor in time.
I chatted with the brothers from Twin Cities, the large group who had just come down from Island Mile, and the couple from Feldtmann Lake. We talked about our routes, our families, and other adventures from days past. The couple from Feldtmann Lake did drop a good piece of advice when I brought up my concerns about the thunderstorm: don't worry so much. If I got stuck and had to stay an extra day it really isn't a big deal. Where better to get delayed then a wild island in the middle of Lake Superior? Sure beats an airport.
The sun fell behind the trees and I walked over to the dock and made some tea. As darkness drooped over the island people drifted back to their camps, wishing each other a good hike tomorrow. Eventually I was alone by the lake, sipping cheap chamomile and watching that otter swim in the water. The otter, probably the same one that the girl had told me about earlier today, had waited until dusk to come out and play next to the dock.
We were all heading our separate ways tomorrow, all these hikers on the Feldtmann Loop, some heading up to Island Mine and a few continuing on elsewhere. No one but me would be going to Malone Bay. I'd be on my own again. Part of me was excited for the challenge of the next few days, anxious to see if my bleeding heels would hold up to the task, and most of me was sad. First I had to leave behind people at Windigo and now again here. We were all here on different paths, though, and for different reasons, and mine was turning out to be lonelier than I expected. I finished my tea, bid the otter a good night, and headed up to the shelter under a dark sky.