McCargoe Cove to Todd Harbor

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


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Where I stayed
A tent in site 4 at Todd Harbor

Flag of United States  , Michigan
Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Day 5: approximately 6.6 miles with pack, 4 more without

"Do you smell that?" I ask Julie as we carefully negotiate a rocky ridge. The view of Lake Superior is stunning, but I'm focused on my nose.

“No, what?”

“Smoke. I smell smoke, coming from ahead of us.” There is a fire ring at McCargoe, but nothing was burning there when we left. Is there a ring ahead of us somewhere? Or, worse, a forest fire?

Julie smells nothing, but that’s not unusual. She has a terrible sense of smell, which is very useful in her profession as a veterinarian. Not so I. My nose is as keen as a bloodhound’s. Well, not quite, but it is still very good for a human being and I’m definitely smelling smoke and it has me worried.

What if there were a forest fire, I wonder. We’re eight hundred feet up on a rocky ridge, and getting down to one of the lakes below would be difficult, if not impossible.

“We could find a rocky spot with no vegetation around it and hunker down,” Julie suggests. Though the area is very rocky, I don’t see any such location nearby. In fact, much of the vegetation on the ridge is so dry and brittle, it would explode into flame if you just glared angrily at it.

I wonder if Mylar would reflect the heat of a fire away from us.

The anxiety about fire has energized me, which is a good thing because when I started out this morning, I felt like my femurs were pistons driving into my pelvis with every step. I still feel vaguely queasy and the thought of food, especially gorp, peanut butter, or any sort of “bar” makes me want to puke. Unfortunately, aside from our dehydrated Mountain House dinners, the only food we have is gorp, peanut butter, and assorted nutrition bars. What I really want to eat right now is steak, preferably a filet mignon from Erte, a Minneapolis restaurant we sometimes frequent.

All of my hiking before today was simply a prelude to this, the real event, hiking the Minong Ridge Trail, the most difficult trail on the island. Originally created to allow access to the north side of the island for fire fighting purposes, it was opened to the public in the sixties. At the time, it was decided to leave it rugged and ungroomed. Instead of boardwalks, there are logs and beaver dams. Cairns mark the paths across bare rock. People get lost on the Minong. They give up and turn back. It’s not a trail for sissies.

I suppose that is what I’m trying to prove: I’m not a sissy.

Luckily, only the first few miles of today’s hike are tough. Most of it is relatively easy. We’ve stopped for a mid-morning break when two hikers catch up to us from McCargoe. Grizzled old men, one has white hair and is walking bent over at a forty-five degree angle to keep the weight of his ancient external frame pack over his legs. They stop and chat with us briefly, probably to make sure we are properly hydrated. In an unusual turn of events, they actually introduce themselves to us. The white-haired man is Mike, and his friend is Hank. They hear there is only one shelter at Todd Harbor and they are wondering if we’d be willing to let them use it. They don’t have a tent, only a tarp, and the nights have been so cold….

“You can have the shelter,” I interrupt, albeit a little sadly. I don’t consult Julie first, so I hope she isn’t angry with me. Mike mentions that we can share the shelter. They are designed to sleep six, and you are supposed to share them if the campground gets full. I don’t say so, but I don’t want to share with anyone. What if they snore? How would I get any sleep with three snorers in the shelter with me? More importantly, I wouldn’t feel free to fart at will. No, much better for them to have the shelter to themselves.

They hike onwards while Julie and I finish our break. Twenty minutes later, we pass them as they rest on a dead tree in a nice shady spot. Throughout the day, I find myself looking over my shoulder to see if they are catching up to us. Actually, I can’t see over my shoulder with the pack on. I have to stop and turn around to look, which means I can’t do it often, because what if they were right behind? They’d know the source of my anxiety: I really don’t want to be passed on the trail by a couple of septuagenarians. How sissy would that be? So I hike fast, which means I keep up with Julie. It also means my back is in agony. I try not to fight the pain, to accept it as part of the experience of hiking. I ask myself, “how do I know I don’t need my back to stop hurting?” The answer comes with every step: I’m still hiking. The pain hasn’t stopped me.

My awareness of the pain starts to change. Instead of being all-encompassing, I notice that it is in fact caused by muscle spasms. When a spasm happens, my immediate reaction is to stop and wish I could lie down. Then the muscle releases and I’m fine again. I take a new approach. Instead of fighting my back, I try to work with it. When it spasms, I breathe deeply and wait for the throbbing to pass. When it stops, instead of wasting time anticipating the next spasm, I try to look around and appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. Because it is beautiful.

There isn’t a single spot I’ve seen on the island that isn’t at least pretty, if not spectacularly gorgeous. This very morning, we’d crested a ridge and were treated to a bird’s eye view of Otter Lake, and behind it Beaver Lake, and to the right McDonald Lake, and behind all of them Lake Superior, with Canada a dark gash on the horizon. Not all of the beauty is picturesque, but it is everywhere around us.

Eventually we find a good spot to stop and call a lunch break. It’s not easy to find a place to put down your pack and sit that doesn’t completely block the path. My stomach is growling, so I force down a couple of crackers coated with peanut butter and a handful of gorp. Though I haven’t wanted to eat, I’ve been drinking plenty of water. I’m carrying a 1.8 liter Platypus “hydration pack” on my back with a drinking tube hanging just inches from my lips.

Hank and Mike pass us. This makes me want to jump up and overtake them, but I’m too tired to bother. The short break doesn’t make my back stop hurting, but it does lessen to a dull ache. I take an Aleve. You’re supposed to take no more than three in a day, but I’m popping four or five and throwing in Tylenol some days. It doesn’t seem to be helping.

About half an hour later, we come across Hank and Mike again. Mike is sitting by the side of the trail, a map across his knees. Hank stands over him. “What’s up?” I ask them, suddenly reminded of the forest fire.

“We think we passed the turnoff to the campground.”

Julie says, “No, we didn’t see the post.” Every trail intersection is marked by a post showing the name of the destination and sometimes the mileage. “I’m pretty sure four of us couldn’t have missed it.”

“Well, we passed that stream just before we saw you and thought it was only .3 miles from there to the campground. We’ve been up ahead another quarter mile and didn’t see any sign, so we’re thinking we missed it.”

I look at the map. “We haven’t been able to see the lake in awhile.” The “lake” being Superior to the north. “And the campsite is right on the lake. We would have seen it.”

They agree to keep on hiking with us, but maybe a mile further on, Mike, again certain that we’ve gone too far, wants to turn around. “Why don’t you stay here,” I tell them. “Julie and I will go on ahead and if we find it, I’ll blow on my whistle. If we did pass it,” I continue, “it is a pain in the butt for me and Julie, but we were going to Little Todd tomorrow anyway. If you passed it though, it’s a real problem. So just wait here for a bit and listen for the whistle.”

Just a half mile later we reach the campsite. I blow the whistle as loudly as I can, and we stash our gear in the shelter to claim it for Hank and Mike. Site choice is a no-brainer. Site 4 is the most gorgeous, picturesque site I’ve seen yet. The tent pad is on grass, not bare dirt, just outside a small grove of pine. Through the trees, you can see Lake Superior. The beach is only fifty feet away.

We wonder if Hank and Mike heard the whistle. I worry that they turned around again and will end up back at McCargoe. We are relieved when they tramp into camp a short time later. They hadn’t heard the whistle, but Hank had ditched his pack and followed us, then gone back to Mike to let him know the campground was ahead.

I take off my boots and grab the Dirty water bag. Padding across the soft pine needles toward the water, barefoot, I worry about ringworm or other fungal diseases you can get on your feet. I almost step on a dead mouse in the trail. I am overheating, and all I want to do is cool myself down by wading into the lake. Getting our water supply for the day is just an excuse.

The water is full of krish—mostly tiny pieces of what look like bark. I carefully wade out over the slippery rocks that line the bottom of the harbor until the water is up to my knees. It’s just as polluted out here as by the shore. Then I realize that I’m filtering this water, and the floating debris is certainly larger than the .2 microns the filter is designed to handle. I’m only in the water a minute or two, but my legs are already numb from the cold.

Tired as we are, we decide to take a day hike. What neither of us say is that we are hoping to see some moose. I know it isn’t just me because of how quietly Julie is walking and talking. Not that she’s usually noisy, but she’s being extra quiet, and moving extra slowly through areas that look moose-friendly. The going is so easy without our packs. We can look at our surroundings instead of our feet. After two miles, we turn back. No moose are seen, and when we return to the tent we find that no red squirrels, fox, or other campers have ravaged our tent or gear.

That night after dinner, we sit for awhile with Hank and Mike. We learn that they were in graduate school together in Madison, Wisconsin, back in the early seventies. They’ve stayed in touch over the years, getting together regularly for week-long outdoor adventures. Both said that when they got home this time, their wives were sure to ask, “Is this the last one?”

I could tell that neither one of them would say yes.

Suggestion for improving the park: Strategically placed picnic tables on the trails.

Interesting graffiti: In the loo, there’s a lively conversation about the Cairn Killer Corp. Someone has written that the Cairn Killer Corp has destroyed over 100 cairns, and that cairns are litter. You need to understand that cairns are very important on the Minong Ridge trail. They are used to guide you across the rocks so you don’t get lost. I had to agree with the response that said, “If I catch you destroying cairns, I’ll build a cairn with your skulls!” Someone else called the Cairn Killers “Fag tree hugers.” In response to that, someone wrote, “Huggers. Learn how to spell, moron.” I confess that the graffiti worried me some, though the last entry was dated 2007, and Julie and I had followed many undestroyed cairns already.
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