This year marked my return to Isle Royale National Park after better than a decade abscence.


Short drive from the Porcupine Mountains to Houghton. Walked around a very changed town. Spent the evening loading out packs and making compromises necessary for such a long trip. I'm really looking forward to Nate being able to carry a significant part of the load.


Stormed in the night. Woke to limited visibility. Arrived in time at plane dock, but nothing is flying. Wandered out, wandered in, wandered out, caught lunch, saw the town. Now it's 2:30 and the fog hasn't cleared at the island end. Possible Windigo start, as that is clearing first. Nate is taking the delay better than I would have expected.

4:00 and I thought I saw the plane taxiing from the lift bridge. This gives us an hour for a last cappucino before we depart civilization. At the very worst we'll stay here another night and get into Rock Harbor in the morning. That would mean changing the itinerary but not by much really. There is the possibility of starting the trip at Windigo instead, if that area clears first. I'd rather stick to my original plan, of course-but only because it takes me over sections of the trail I've never seen before. The alternatives are places I've been over before, though in truth it's been long enough that I'd not recognize a thing.

7:15 PM
Yep, still here. Revised flight plan to 9:00 tomorrow morning-weather permitting. If we hold over till Friday, it will mean a major rescheduling, otherwise we can keep almost the same schedule if the water taxi is available tomorrow. Relaxed enough we're not concerned in the least. The net result is that we get to eat a lot better with the same weight-never a bad thing.

I didn't remember as much maneuvering on my father's part to make these trips work. I suppose it was the same, but I was just unconcerned by it all as a child. Do I go back to the wilderness to find him, or for other reasons?


7:30 AM
Fog and drizzle again this morning. Very unlikely we'll get out this morning. Weather forecast is for improved conditions this afternoon. The power has been on and off again since 5:00 this morning. A trio of bats are clinging to the wall just outside our room. Cold and wet, and they don't seem to be interested in flying. Wish I had a glove so I could show Nate what they look like close up.

9:40 AM
No sign of clearing at all. Ran into another party that was supposed to go out this morning. Two couples in their twenties-first time backpacking in at least one case. The guy seemed mystified and a little annoyed that they weren't flying. There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.

3:00 PM
At long last-flying. The pilot would really rather not have carried those two couples who were going to Windigo. Apparently one of the guys was trying his best to persuade the pilot to fly-against his better judgement. He tried to enlist me into the effort, but I wasn't buying in. Arrived at Rock Harbor to discover that the water taxi wasn't running anymore today, and was booked solid till Sunday. So, another quick revision of our travel plans. We won't get to Hatchet Lake, but we will make McCargo Cove. Only one uncomfortably long day-but workable.

Made Three Mile campground around 7:00. Pretty rugged trek, but covered it quickly enough.


Depart 10:00:Arrive Moskey Basin at 4:15

Beautiful weather-but the trail is rocky, root-tangled, and frequently churned into a boot-top deep ooze. In some places the trail is indistinguishable from a stream bed. Hard on the feet and joints. The stretch between Daisy Farm and Moskey Basin is dryer overall, but frequently stony and rough.

Observed a seagull fishing in the little cove outside our shelter. He floats on the surface of the water, then suddenly jumps up about three feet, to dive back into the water headfirst. We can only assume he's fishing. Observed two behaviors in the Loons as well. The first was a foot waving ritual between an adult and a couple of juveniles. They would roll slightly to one side and wave their foot in the air for a few seconds. This went on back and forth for several minutes. The other behavior I would have to say resembled group hunting of fish by about a dozen juveniles. They came around the point of this little cove in a line more or less abreast about two feet apart. They would suddenly put on a burst of speed and paddle the water fairly hard. When they got most of the way across they closed off a corner of the cove, then most of them dived and sped into the pocket. At the rear of this little flotilla, and not taking part, was a single adult-probably female.

We arrived at Moskey Basin about 4:15 to take shelter #1, the last available. While we're unpacking and setting up for dinner, an otter walks through our site, calm as you please, rolls over and chitters at us, and continues on his way. About an hour later he wanders back through from the other direction and repeats his performance. Never seen one in the wild before. I can't decide if his lack of fear and this display is the result of a natural gregariousness or his frequent contact with man.
Treated to a territorial dispute between two small red squirrels-chattering, chasing, and bouncing all over the site. I wonder if the possibility of choice leavings is what makes this prime territory. Call of loon in the night.

9:00 PM. Getting the complete symphony: loon call, seagull screech, chattering squirrels, and surprisingly loud; the beating of loon wings passing overhead.


9:30 AM Departure:Arrive West Chickenbone at 2:15

Remembered very little of the trail from 1974-not too surprising really, though I hadn't thought about it beforehand. Saw two moose carcasses today-one yesterday just outside of Daisy Farm.-today about 1/2 mile outside of Moskey Basin, and another one outside Lake Ritchie. They had a large die-off over the winter that accounts for it, but I'm surprised that as much remains this late in the year. This seems to be a small mammal trip this year. Just outside of Moskey Basin we came across two foxes playing in the trail. They seemed unconcerned by us, though definitely wary.
Today was the famous miserable second day that I've learned to know and love. I've got raw spots on my hips-not from the belt so much as the coarse fabric of my shorts. In the future it will be biker's shorts for me. These abrasions could be a real problem in the days ahead. We're only halfway through this-I've got no choice but to make it. Wondering if we've bitten off a bit much this time. Nate can't carry enough yet to really lighten my load on these long trips.


10:45 Departure:Arrive McCargo Cove at 12:15

Easy day today-following the stream connecting Chickenbone Lake to McCargo Cove. An enormous lunch of pizza and honey mustard chicken followed by naps. We got a shelter, of course, since we were so early.

Odd how we try to cling to our attitudes even here. (a thought train brought on by some new wave/grungers who rolled in) We try to behave as if we are still who we were on the outside world. I come here to cease being who I am. Who I usually am is not important out here-and I really don't want to know who you usually are either. The best conversations are almost nonexistent, and deal entirely with the here and now. I don't ask for names and don't supply mine unless asked. I like the distance of this place to be absolute. Perhaps the urge to talk about what we are and where we're from provides us with something comfortingly familiar in a mostly alien landscape. Yet, I don't want to be comforted. I revel in it's essential otherness to my usual life. Therapy by self-abuse; works for me! On a solo trip I could easily be silent for the whole time, were it not for the occasional civilities forced upon us whenever we meet.

Evening patrol by two moose-first a bull for about half an hour, followed by a cow-both grazing the shoreline of the cove opposite the dock. We're told they walked right through camp this morning. One of the last North American plio-pleistocene quadrupeds.

A lovely sailboat anchored in the cove this evening. Maybe forty feet long, with a self-furling rig. An inboard auxiliary rigged for blue water sailing. Now, there is a retirement plan!


8:45 Departure:Arrive Daisy Farm 2:20

T-shirt idea: Donner Party Store, Alfred Packer, proprietor. Wilderness outfitter and trailside catering.

Three moose today. The first two, a cow and young bull, at the first beaver pond along the trail above McCargo Cove. The third, a large bull, about a mile outside Daisy Farm. Came upon the skeletal fragments of a moose calf-just a vertebra and a couple of ribs. Too large for wolf, and the vertebra had a prominent spine I remembered from the other carcasses. This is so thoroughly bleached that I suspect it died prior to last winter-probably the previous summer-maybe even the one before. I suppose an expert could tell the season from the development of the bones.

What I re-learn whenever I'm returning to populated areas is just how much I dislike other people. Daisy Farm has a resident otter and he's becoming used to being touched by people. If he gets excited, and accidently bites someone, it won't be the person's brain they take out to test for rabies. It's a wild animal, and aside from the very real danger inherent in a 30 pound carnivore, whenever an animal comes into conflict with man, they inevitably lose, even if the animal is innocent.
The point is not to see how clever a substitute you can devise for all of your household appliances, but rather how many of them you can do without.
A good friend is like a present you get to open over and over. Or like one of those intricate puzzle boxes with all sorts of hidden surprises.


8:00 Departure Arrive Rock Harbor 11:15 Our first vermin problem in Rock Harbor. The squirrels seem to be fighting over possession of the campsites. While we were out walking, one of them chewed through the netting of the tent in search of some trash. When we got back, we startled him-one squirrel barreling around the inside of the tent looking for a way out. Food from the store and a shower, and things look pretty good.


6-1/2 hours on the boat. Passage from Snug Harbor to Mott Island in just a fraction of the time it took to walk it the day before. Watching the island recede over the fantail. Patchy fog over the island.

Trips like this remind me of my own personal isolation. Apollonian in the extreme. I don't loosely associate with anyone, have almost no comrades-almost no one I couldn't leave behind. Pathological self-sufficiency? Is that possible?


Odd to be walking the streets of Copper Harbor again. Last time I was here, my father was with us and Nancy was pregnant. Things change, I resent them for it, yet realize nothing any of us do can change that. The dock has been replaced, with fees and officialdom to be dealt with. Jamsen's fish no longer catches their own. The Charles J. is long gone. The old launch that sat on the beach at the end of a side road has been dragged to the Isle Royale Queen dock as a landscaping decoration. Cabins I remember are gone or remodelled beyond recognition. The old barn at the center of town is gone. The ramshackle open place I remember is gone. At least the beach stone candy I loved as a kid is still sold at the downtown gift shop. Seems though this is the only place in the world I've been around long enough to notice the changes. A day of gift shops and the Delaware Mine tour.

Dale Austin
All images and text copyright 1977-2003 Dale Austin



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Isle Royale National Park, 1996