Lessons Learned from Isle Royale

Planning for the Isle Royale solo adventure stretched out months before I stepped onto the Queen at Copper Harbor. There were itineraries to sync up, pieces of gear to purchase, calories to count, and more than a few tests of physical readiness. Even after all this preparation the island would teach me a few hard lessons over the nine days I was out there, lessons that I hope to remember the next time I head out on something like this.

Now, I'm not new to hiking. Wandering around the Upper Peninsula and, more recently (and reluctantly) the deserts of Arizona, I've logged dozens of overnight trips and thousands of miles. What I am new to, though, is being out day after day after day. Until Isle Royale I had never been in the woods for more than a few days at a time and never been more than twenty miles from a car and easy ride back to civilization. The difference was stark.

Things that Went Well

  • Distance Traveled - 130 miles over 9 days? While planning I tried to guess how far I could actually go out there. I've done thirty miles in a day without a pack and thirty miles in two days with a pack. Well, thirty miles backpacking was incredibly hard, and I ran up a massive water deficit. Hiking this far for this long, though, was a moonshot, and I'm still a bit shocked that I was able to pull it off.
  • Perfect Route - each day on the island turned out to be just right, both in terms of the trail and length. Every day I got to swim in and sleep near Lake Superior (though Feldtmann Lake was kinda pushing it). I managed to hike most of the three main trails: Greenstone, Minong, and Feldtmann. And the days were broken up into good chunks. Day 2 was my first twenty mile day for a chance to test out the long distances, and Days 5 and 6 were both under 12 miles, giving me a much-needed pair of rest days in the middle. The only thing I would change about my route was the over-ambitious commitment on the last day.
  • Weather - going so late in the summer cut down the amount of bugs to deal with but also raised the risk of cool and stormy days. There was no need to worry. With highs in 80s and lows around 60, I couldn't have asked for better weather on the island. Except for the thunderstorm on the last day, that is.

  • Gear - every piece of gear I brought along proved to be useful. The down jacket, a last-minute splurge, kept me warm in the cooler evenings. Gloves, which I had hauled along for cold temperatures, were invaluable in protecting my hands from further sunburn. Rain paints and poncho protected me from dewy mornings and the few storms. Four pairs of wool socks kept my feet dry (once I learned to rotate them). Even the trekking poles, things I thought I would never use, pushed my pace and kept load off of my knees on the tough climbs. There were a few items whose age showed, like my boots, yet for the most part I was pretty happy with my gear.
  • Food - I packed enough food to keep me going through the entire trip. There was a healthy variety of salty snacks, protein-packed bars, sweet foods, and savory dinners. My original plan was to carry about a pound (2000 calories or so) a day and ended up with a total of twelve pounds (almost 2500 calories a day). And I ate every single thing I brought, finishing the last snacks on the ferry ride back. While another pound or two would have been safer, I was never too hungry out there.

Things that Did Not Go Well

  • Injuries - for first aid I brought a basic kit, handful of band-aids, knee-brace, and small assortment of pills. It wasn't enough. After the Minong my feet were so torn up that I was out of band-aids within two days, and without a quick stop at Windigo and a friendly hiker to resupply I would have been using duct tape on my heels. Also, with no aloe or creams my sunburned hands were terribly painful. And this was only with two relatively minor injuries. If I would have had something serious, like a flared up knee or deep cut, my little kit would have been even less helpful. This trip taught me that I need better first aid supplies and some basic training to better handle myself out there.
  • Boots - well, I love my boots. They've been with me on snowy trips through the Huron Mountains, through creeks in the Peshekee, and on hard rocky outcroppings in the Keweenaw, and even over the hot desert ground of Arizona. However, they are cracked, ripped, torn, worn out, and absolutely not waterproof. The dew and rains on Isle Royale soaked them through and were a direct cause of my torn up feet mentioned above. I love my boots, and they've been with me for a long time, but I think it's time for a new pair.
  • Clothing - synthetic clothing is just the worst while backpacking. I brought along three long-sleeves, one a silk baselayer and two polyester/spandex running shirts, and those two running shirts did not hold up. After a few days of hiking they were in another world of stink. I'm not sure I've ever smelled anything that bad (and this is from the guy with five-year old hiking boots). I washed them at least three times out there, with soap and everything, and nothing helped. From now on I'm sticking with merino wool and silk for long trips.

Things to Think About

  • Being Ambitious - this trip was a bit crazy, both in terms of distance and scope. And everything worked out. I realized on my third day out there, after a quiet day at Little Todd, that I love that challenge the most. Sure, being out in the woods is nice, and bumping into moose and chatting with other hikers, but I love pushing myself and moving all day. And the next adventure, whether it's Lonestar or John Muir or even just playing around in the Grand Canyon, will probably also be an ambitious one.
  • More Water - I'm bad at stopping while hiking, and I don't like carrying extra weight, which meant that I frequently pushed myself for long stretches without much water. There was the ten mile stretch from Siskiwit Bay to Lake Desor, ten miles over Mount Ojibway and down past Chickenbone, and another ten from Lake Siskiwit to a tiny creek east of Hatchet Lake. Stretching a single liter to last four hours and ten miles is tough. I need to either start carrying more water (two liters is so much more reasonable) or get used to the idea of stopping and pumping more often.
  • More Food - 2500 calories was okay for this trip. I'd consider it a minimum for a week-long backpacking trip, though. Close to fifteen pounds was lost while on Isle Royale. 3000 calories, plus an emphasis on protein and fat, would be more ideal for future adventures. I'm not excited about that much more weight, which means I need to start looking for denser menu options too.
  • Even Lighter Loads - my current base weight is around 26 pounds. There wasn't anything special brought along either, which means that my next trip will probably also start at that weight. I'd really like to start below 20. I'm already looking at shelter options (tarps mostly) that could get me halfway there. The concern of a rattlesnake slipping under a tarp at night does worry me a bit.

One thing about Isle Royale that sunk deep is that I'm sold on this backpacking thing. Hiking is fun, and I'll still head out for day trips in the Superstitions and such, but this backpacking thing is so much better. Being out on the trail for days (or weeks) at a time is a whole different and exciting experience. Again, it may be Lonestar or John Muir or even the Grand Canyon, or (if the wife dares to let me return to the Midwest again) the Superior Trail. One way or another I'll be scheming and planning and backpacking again, hopefully this time with a bit more wisdom and care.