by: Matt Simerson
Monday 28 Sep 20

Isle Royale

I have always intended to go hiking on Isle Royale and since Jen and I are living in Michigan, this seemed like the year to do so. Since Michigan's upper peninsula (U.P.) is saturated with mosquitos and black flies during the summer, I would only ever consider such a trip during early spring or late fall. Since it didn't happen this spring, we checked the ferry schedules to find out when the latest possible trip would be, and then picked a weekend slightly before that. Ferry service from Hancock has already ceased running for the season but the ferry from Copper Harbor still runs on Mondays & Fridays. From there we had simply to plan our trip around the ferry schedule.

Our itinerary had to be a Friday-Monday trip simply because we've already used most of Jen's vacation time for our Alaska trip. The Isle Royale Queen III departs at 8 AM so we'd need to be in Copper Harbor no later than 7:30 AM. Route 66 was tellling me an absurd 12 hours to get to Copper Harbor so I checked with a few map sites (Yahoo Maps, Mapquest, Mapblast) and got widely varying reports of estimated trip time from 6 - 10 hours. I checked with my old standby, Street Atlas 6.0, and it confirmed that 8 hours was a reasonable expected trip time. Thus, we planned 10 hours to give ourselves some margin and would need to leave by 9 PM.

On Thursday evening, we were all packed and ready earlier than planned so we departed at 6:50 PM. We got into Copper Harbor at 2:44 AM, early enough to nap for a few hours. As a memory enhancement device for myself and a guide to others, I have recorded a detailed transportation chart of the trip.

Transportation Summary

Elapsed time
Cadillac Copper Harbor
449.5 07:50 57 1
$18.86 45 mpg
Passenger Ferry
Copper Harbor
Rock Harbor
4.5 hrs
$100 3

Bipedal Copper Harbor Daisy Farm 7
3.5 hrs

1,100 calories 4
Daisy Farm
Lane Cove
1 day

1,500 calories 4
Lane Cove
Three Mile
1 day

1,500 calories 4
Three Mile
Rock Harbor
2 hrs

800 calories 4
Passenger Ferry Rock Harbor Copper Harbor 54
4.5 hrs
$100 3

Auto Copper Harbor Cadillac 466.5 07:26 62 2 ~ $21



916 15:16 60
~ $40


9 hours


26 4 days, 3 nights 0.65

Grand Total

1050 4 days, 08:01 2.27


1. avg freeway: 80 mph, avg highway: 66 mph, one toll stop, one driver switch
2. avg freeway: 85 mph, avg highway: 70 mph, one toll stop, one  pizza stop, one gas stop, two driver switches
3. $50 per passenger per leg ($100 round trip per person)
4. calorie totals do no include indigenous dietary supplements such as blueberries, rose hips, raspberries, and thimbleberries.

If you are using these times for trip planning purposes, keep in mind that we were making very good time by driving at night during periods of minimal traffic. We slowed only for rare traffic and while passing through towns.

I have also compiled a trip packing list and have published an online photo album.

FRIDAY (Sept 17, 04)

At 7:30 AM we changed out of our "street clothes", checked in, and boarded the ferry. Shortly after the 8:05 AM departure, I realized I had made a strategic error. The morning sun was getting ready to dawn, the water was as smooth as Lake Superior ever gets, and the colors were wonderful. I had left my camera in my backpack which was in the cargo hold. Oops. On the four and half hour ride, we both also wished we had brought along breakfast and water. Instead I purchased a couple reasonably priced waters and M&M's from the snack bar.

The Isle Royale Queen III arrived in Rock Harbor on-time at 12:35. There we got the typical "orientation" by Ranger Randy in which he explained the basics of low impact outdoor ethics. He didn't specifically mention Leave No Trace but his speech was a slightly modified version of LNT hiking ethics with some additional tips about how to deal with moose should you get charged. After his talk we all filed into the permit station, obtained our permits, and then bolted away from those small remnants of civilization. We were on the trail by 1:30 PM.

For our first days journey, we planned to hike 7 miles to the Daisy Farm campground. Shortly after getting onto the trail, we introduced ourselves to the thimbleberries. Legend has it they are named such because they fit over the end of your finger like a thimble. They are a cousin to the raspberry with a more tart flavor. The plant itself is much different with broad leaves and no thorns (yay!). Some folks confuse them with salmonberries but this is certainly not the case. The plant itself is much different as is the flavor of the berry. The main purpose of thimbleberries is to distract the unfed hiker.

We casually munched our way to Three Mile where we paused for lunch from 3 to 3:30 PM. From there the trail led us along the shoreline to Daisy Farm where we arrived at 5:45 PM. As we walked into camp we met "Ransom", the camp red tail fox. While not fearing us, it also wouldn't pose so I didn't get a good photo. There was only one other party in the camp. We headed out of camp and spent the night on group site 3 (tent only) as it was spacious for my tarp and conveniently close to a stream.

While dinner was cooking we set up the tarp and I taught Jen how to use boot heels to dig up the ground and shape the dirt to conform to our natural contours. On the dirt goes our space blankets which provide a nice area to lay out our beds and spread out the gear. It was getting chilly so we donned extra layers in camp. I'd estimate the evening temperature at 53° F. We ate our dinner, fox-proofed the camp, and were in our sleeping bags by 8 PM. Shortly thereafter it rained for a while. I don't know how long it lasted since after snapping a couple photos, I promptly drifted off to sleep.

SATURDAY (Sept 18, 04)

I awoke at 2:30 AM for unknown reasons. I hit the little "Indiglo" button on my Timex Expedition watch and the alarm came on steady and refused to cease. I gave up on getting it to cease and buried it under my leg to hush it and went back to sleep. At 6:30 I awoke again and spent a while fiddling, trying to get the watch to shut up. I finally resorted to bashing it on rocks until the case popped apart and the battery fell out. Ah, blessed silence. After putting the battery back in, it behaved normally and I used a couple smaller rocks to re-assemble it. It worked just fine for the rest of the trip.

The morning was quite brisk so we wore our base layers, mid weight, and our shells to keep warm.  Jen had on her fleece as well.  We had a leisurely morning, eating breakfast and breaking down camp. We were back onto the trail around 10 and it was already quite warm.  I stripped down to shorts and t-shirt before departure. We hiked up the trail towards Mount Ojibway and spent a fair bit of time along the trails picking blueberries. We ate many and saved a couple cupfuls for breakfast. After reaching Mt. Ojibway I took a few panorama shots from the tower. Unfortunately, they're midday shots so they're a bit dull.


Much of the island is excellent moose habitat so we expected to see a moose or two. We did spot a beaver and a turtle but no moose. We finally decided to head over to Lane Cove to spend the night. We hiked East on the Greenstone Ridge for a couple miles and then turned North down the trail towards the cove. The trail descends quite rapidly for about 600 feet through a series of switchbacks and then rises and falls gently for the next couple miles. It's quite damp and there's a respectable mosquito population in there. We didn't bring deet and I didn't want to add clothing layers so I wasted no time on the trail.

We arrived in the campground around 5:30 and after scouting all the sites, settled on number 3. It has the best water access (all are on the cove) and featured a nice area inside the trees on which to pitch my tarp. I filled up our MSR dromedary bag with water and sat it in the sun to warm while we piled up pine needles to make comfy beds. I have owned that dromedary bag and shower attachment for many years and this is the first trip it's left home.

After getting our beds prepared and spending some time soaking up the sun I hung the dromedary from a tree branch a ways back from the lake. It had plenty of water for us both to wet ourselves, lather up, and then thoroughly rinse off. After getting all cleaned up, we started feeling a little frisky and began creating a little love nest when the only other person in camp dropped in for a visit. We chatted briefly and he returned to his site. After the interlude, we spent some quality time together.

Being alone with your sweetheart on the waters edge of Lake Superior is romantic. It get's more so as the sun paints the sky golden shades of orange. This is what I had imagined on so many other hiking trips. We'd always talk about how nice it would be to have our women along with us. Hiking with your honey does require compromises (like carrying more than your share of the "group" weight) but the rewards are worth the effort.

Shortly after sunset the sailors we had seen earlier arrived in their zodiac to hike up the trail. It was only 2.3 miles to the ridge and they intended to hike up the ridge and back before dark equipped with only a mini-mag. I sent them off with a Petzl Zipka headlamp to supplement their preparedness. They arrived back shortly before dark having only gone part of the way before turning back. They were quite friendly and chatted for a while before a twilight race back to their boat for dinner.

We settled down to bed at 8:30. It was a warmer evening than the previous. I normally sleep in just my polypro underwear and then add layers if I'm not warm enough. Because it was warmer and mosquitos were present, I added on my thin polar fleece, wool gloves, and both balaclavas. I slept quite comfortably with my lower half in my bag and my upper body exposed to the night air. I awoke with the bag pulled up slightly, something my body does without my awareness. Thus it was apparent that the temperature had remained quite comfortable through the night.

SUNDAY (Sept 19, 04)

I slept like a rock through the night, a testimony to how comfy a pine needle bed can be. We were both refreshed and enjoyed our blueberries with the morning's ration of oatmeal. Anxious to get the climb back out of Lane Cove behind us, we broke down camp and hit the trail early. We were back up on the Greenstone Ridge by 11:30 where we paused for lunch. After a half hour we headed east along the ridge. We stashed our packs and then continued hiking east a couple miles to see what was there. It's heavily treed and occasionally breaks out with vistas to the South but it lacked appeal. We were on the prowl for berries and wildlife.

We hiked back up and retrieved our packs. As we crested Mount Franklin, we noticed rain clouds low and rapidly approaching. Rather than head West across the Greenstone towards the blueberry patches we had seen before, we headed down the trail towards Three Mile campground. The rain clouds ended up missing us. After about a mile we ran into a particularly well endowed patch of thimbleberries. We picked ourselves a couple cups worth before moving on. A while later Jen found a rich patch of blueberries so I plopped down in the middle and we picked a couple cups of blueberries. We arrived in Three Mile around 4 in the afternoon.

The sun was still high and warm so I tried to bribe Jen into diving into Lake Superior. She turned down a $40 bribe but then ceded, "I'll go in if you do." After being married to me for two years, I thought she knew better. We spent the next hour sitting on the dock, letting the sun dry our hair and clothes.

A couple hikers from Minnesota set up in the shelter next to ours and joined us on the dock. We spent the evening there conversing, making dinner, and sharing experiences. One had been charged by a moose earlier that day. We had been talking about photos and I asked if he got photos of the experience.  He replied, "I was far too busy being scared to even soil my underwear." Some guys have all the luck.

After having dinner, Jen mashed the thimbleberries into a jam of sorts and added some Grand Marnier that we had brought along in a baby bota bag. The combination was okay but its pucker power was immense. I added a packet of spiced cider which brought the sugar content up to "reasonable" and made it a quite interesting dessert.  I separated my rose hips from the blueberries and brewed up a batch of rose hip tea. I found it acceptable but Jen wasn't impressed.

We spent the night in one of the three sided shelters. They are fully enclosed with one side being entirely screened. While it was nice to be insulated from varmints and insects, sleeping on wooden floors does not approach the comfort of contoured soil or a pine needle bed. Jen and I both had little sleep.

MONDAY (Sept 20, 04)

Shortly after dawn, Jen made her ritual morning pilgrimage to the outhouse. I wandered out in front of a pine tree for similar purposes and noticed a couple blobs in the water. I watched for a minute before determining it was a pair of moose swimming across the harbor to a small island. I ran back and informed the neighbors and grabbed my camera and the  longer 70-210 lens to snap a couple photos of them. The neighbors came running with point and shoot cameras in hand but immediately realized their cameras were wholly inadequate for the task.

Being able to capture a reasonable photo of the moose crossing made me feel much better about the decision to tote along my enormous Nikon D70 camera. It's pretty average sized and very light for a SLR but compared to the little point and shoot digital cameras like my old Coolpix 995 or Canon PowerShot S400, it's a beast. This is the one occasion where I wished I had brought along my AF 80-400mm VR lens. It would have brought the swimming moose up close and personal. As it turns out, my favorite photo of them is with my 70-210 lens at 90mm, showing the moose swimming under the dawning sun.

After watching the moose until they reached the opposite shore, we went about the tasks of the morning. We once again had oatmeal with our blueberries. After breakfast, I made myself a cup of spiced cider and as we sat chatting, I noticed a red berry on a vine behind Jen. This alone was no occasion of concern as thimbleberries were abundant but this berry was sitting on a plant that looked very much like a raspberry bush. I pointed out this little fact to Jen and she sprung into action. She had nearly a handful picked before I finished sipping my cider.


After devouring all the raspberries in camp, we broke up camp and hiked back to Rock Harbor via the Tobin Harbor trail. Other than being a bit more secluded, it seems to offer no advantage to hiking along the Rock Harbor trail unless the weather happened to be inclement.

At Rock Harbor we struck up a conversation with the camper we met in Lane Cove and another friendly fellow. We talked about different hiking spots, travel in various countries, and extensively about the culinary treats afforded in each locale. Food is always a topic of interest to hikers coming off the trail. The longer the hike, the greater the desire for savory food.

The morning winds had died down but the lake still had 1-5 foot waves so the ride back was considerably more bumpy than the ride over. It was more how I remember Lake Superior - bold, cold, inviting, and completely unforgiving. Many of the passengers were not enjoying the trip nearly so much and worked hard to stay focused on the horizon and hold down their lunch. I had an hour nap and then read through this months National Geographic to pass the time.

We arrived in Copper Harbor at 7:30 PM and decided to just hurry home instead of spending the night and driving home Tuesday. We scooted out of town and I put the hammer down, looking forward to sleeping in my own bed. We stopped in Houghton and bought a $5 Little Ceasers 'Hot N Now' pizza. We won't feel the need to do that again. We stopped a bit later for gas and ice cream bars and then I drove until just before the Mackinaw bridge. Jen took over and drove to Grayling where I finished up, arriving home at 3:30 AM.

We showered and dropped into the soft comfy bed adorned with down pillows in our recently completed master bedroom.