How I came to hike across Isle Royale

Trip Start Sep 02, 2011
Trip End Sep 11, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Wednesday, August 31, 2011

January 17, 2011

 There is ice on my eyelashes.

The road stretches ahead of me, flat and white. The fields on either side are covered in undisturbed snow, each with a single large tree rising from the center. The sky ahead is blue, but to the east it is gray. A storm brewing, perhaps.

There is no sound but the crunching of our feet on the crisp snow. I am behind the others, though my stride is in time with theirs. I simply have shorter legs. Or maybe I'm not as strong. I have fifteen pounds on my back, and Julie, marching ahead tirelessly, has eighteen. Valinda has none.

They periodically stop to let me catch up. This is their rest period. But as soon as I reach them, they are off again, and for me to rest only puts me farther behind.

I envy Julie’s easy gait. The weight is nothing to her. When we return from this four-mile trek, she’ll still have energy to scrape snow off the roof and play a few rounds of Wii tennis, while I’ll be draped across the couch like an abandoned sock monkey.

It’s my sixth week of training for a 55-mile backpacking trip across Isle Royale, and this is Julie’s first. Just an accident of biology that she’s four inches taller than I and as strong as a man. Nothing I can do about that. Or that her job keeps her on her feet all day, while my workaday exercise consists of walking to and from the bathroom several times. But I’ve been working hard, getting stronger, building my stamina, and despite that, despite being eight years younger than Julie, she outperforms me without even trying. When she tells me not to overdo it with my training, I only grunt. She can’t even imagine how far I am from being ready for this trip, how hard I’ll have to work to prepare.

As we march down the quiet country road, I find it hard to believe that this was my idea. Not just bringing our packs up to the cabin so we could hike and snowshoe while wearing them, but the whole backpack-across-Isle Royale plan.

Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, roughly fifty miles long by nine miles wide. It’s part of Michigan even though it lies just twenty miles offshore of Minnesota and more than twice that from its home state. It is one of the least visited National Parks, receiving fewer visitors in a year than Yellowstone does in a day.

To say it was my idea to hike all the way across the island isn’t entirely true. It’s been Julie’s dream since she first visited the park as a teenager. For one reason or another, the trip never worked out for her. She was close once, twenty years ago--even had her ferry tickets, but circumstances intervened and the trip fell apart.

Then one day last year, driving home after an absolutely grueling day trip where we hiked four miles and biked sixteen, I told Julie we should hike Isle Royale. "It’s your dream," I told her. “And it is totally doable. Some people have impossible dreams. You can do this.” Never mind that I’ve never been backpacking or camping in my life, never mind that I’m not athletic and was drained to the core from our adventure that very day, and never mind most of all that I am in a constant battle with back pain. I was as tenacious as a kitten on yarn, batting away all of Julie’s objections.

“You realize that Isle Royale is wilderness,” she said. “You have to carry everything on your back, including all your water.”

“We’ll train,” I told her.

“I don’t think my knees could take it,” she said.

“I bet they can,” I countered.

“I’m fifty-six years old,” she said.

“And you’re in better shape than I am. If I can do it, you can.” I was, of course, ignoring the fact that I had no evidence that I could, in fact, do it.

“You’ll have to sleep on the ground.”

“Big deal,” I replied. “Bring it on.”

High on endorphins, I was all fired up with the idea of the trip. This was a chance to really push myself. Go beyond what I thought was possible. For the next several weeks I brought it up regularly, until Julie simply ignored me. One day, I mentioned the idea to our friend Ben.

“Oh, I hiked that about three years ago.” And he told us all about his trip, backpacking the Minong Ridge trail alone. And that’s when the dream woke again in Julie’s heart. The more Ben talked, the more excited she became. He talked about the arduousness of the trail, how it was up and down, up and down. How it was poorly marked and you had to keep an eye out for rock cairns so you didn’t get lost. As Julie listened, her eyes gleamed, but my brows began to furrow. Lots of hills? Getting lost? This was sounding harder and scarier than I’d imagined.

Having egged Julie on, I couldn’t back out. I started exercising daily. Stretching. Seeing an osteopath for my back. Doing Tai Chi. Eating healthier foods. Buying gear. Planning.

After six weeks, I thought I was ready for this small test of endurance. Four miles with fifteen pounds. I’ve done an hour on the elliptical with twenty-eight. I’ll be carrying more like forty on Isle Royale and hiking two or three times this distance every day. I focus on the stop sign that is our turn-around point. It’s still no more than a small red spot from here. I trudge on. A crow cries in the distance. The ice on my lashes melts and runs down my face like tears.

I adjust my pack and take the next step. And the next.

Bring it on.
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