Six Days on the Isle of Kings
The Circumnavigation of Isle Royale
by Wes Kisting
At four feet tall, they ceased to be waves. They came alive, glassy and dark, like monsters of the sea. These were true boat-swallowers and killers of men, hissing like snakes as their crests curled forward in white froth and crashed violently across the bow, blasting our faces like sleet and hail. Ten feet away, my paddling-partner disappeared behind a wall of water. Every few seconds, a steep, following wave lifted me high enough to catch a glimpse of himstill paddling, still uprightthen, as quickly as it came, the water dropped out from under me, and sent me sliding back down into a deep, hissing pocket of turbulent water.
The cold was piercing, but never so piercing as the fear. Despite my efforts to keep calm, I grasped the paddle with a death-grip. For almost two hours we surfed and lurched on the tumultuous back of Lake Superior, feeling acutely that this greatest of great lakes had lived up to her name. And now, just a day and a half into our journey, still 85 miles from our goal, I found myself haunted by a grim, relentless thought: We really, really could die here.
It is strange how adverse conditions and the prospect of death can alter your relationship to your paddling partner. Every companion on a kayaking expedition is both a potential help, and a possible threat to your own life. Perhaps, when conditions were tough, I would not make a single mistake. Perhaps I would never tip or get knocked over by wind and waves. Maybe it would be my partner Jesse who tipped. At once, his life would become my responsibility. Even if I could get him back into his kayak without tipping myselfeven if we could empty the icy water from his cockpit before he fell into shock and hypothermiathe crisis would not end there. The cold would leave him disoriented and dangerously unsteady. He would need to be kept upright and towed quickly to shore (not really a shore, but a jagged wall of cliffs which afforded no safe landing) amid the same wild conditions that had tipped him in the first place. Or perhaps he would have to do all of this for me.
As we would discover later, this precarious connection to each otheróas both potential helper and fatal hindranceófosters a peculiar love-hate relationship when conditions turn bleak. You paddle on the tossing seas with a kind of selfish fear for your own life and yet a profound concern for your partner. You feel a sliver of comfort that he may save you if you tip; you feel a kind of resent that he may endanger you by tipping himself; but above all, you feel an acute, taxing awareness that, here in conditions where no life should be ventured, you are now wholly responsible for two lives. Psychologically, it ceases to matter that there are two of you. The burden is not shared. It belongs entirely to you, just as it belongs entirely to your partner, because both of you know that whoever tips first or fails to effect a rescue suddenly becomes responsible for the other personís death, and probably their own death too.
Plans and Preparations
From the moment I first conceived the plan three years earlier, many people had warned us not to attempt a circumnavigation of Isle Royale. With freezing water and notoriously unpredictable weather, Lake Superior itself is a powerful force to reckon with. But combined with the dramatic, famously-inhospitable shoreline of the island, this expedition looked to many like sheer recklessness. At least that's what I was told by virtually everyone I talked to. At some point along our ambitious journey, we were certain to face fierce winds and big waves. If a safe landing could be found in time, we would be fine. We could wait out the weather. But with its long stretches of high, sheer cliffssome of them unbroken for 12 or 14 miles at a timelandings were few and far between on the Isle of Kings.
Even the best preparation could not guarantee our safety. Unlike any of my previous expeditions, some legs of this trip simply did not present a viable "exit strategy" if things turned bad. Under the wrong conditions, in spite of all our skill, the most dangerous legs of the trip could easily turn fatal. All the skill and planning in the world would do us little good if, in one of Lake Superior's famous fits of wind and waves, we suddenly found ourselves benumbed by icy water, taxed by steep waves, and hemmed in by jagged cliffs. According to common report, there were at least four major sections of the island where these factors were not only likely but, by some accounts, "inevitable." I worried over these dangers long before I ever went to Isle Royale, but not until I saw them firsthand did I realize (with even greater fear and respect) how well they deserved their treacherous reputation.
At some level this trip was reckless, perhaps. But I was resolved. From the moment I first saw it on a map, the island had haunted the back of my
mind. Long before I saw it in pictures, I imagined it in my dreams. After three years of honing my skills on less ambitious trips, I was finally ready. No other expedition would suffice. My quest to circle the Isle of Kings had become inevitable. To abandon it now, even in the face of so many warnings, was out of the question. All that could be done was to mitigate the dangers as much as possible. So, after three months of studying weather patterns, pouring over nautical charts, calculating timetables and supplies, plotting routes, and persuading Jesse to join me, I finally purchased our tickets on the Wenonah: the ferry which would carry us 15 miles across the great lake to Windigo Harbor on the southwest tip of Isle Royale.
And then, at long last, we were there: leaning over the rail of the Wenonah, squinting into the chilly breeze off the lake, watching the island appear out of the morning mist like a phantom. Already, my heart began to pound. In an hour, we would be standing in Windigo Harbor, launching our kayaks onto the glassy back of the lake to begin an expedition which even the captain of the ferry cautioned us to reconsider. We knew there were hard times ahead. Even if the weather was kind all weekwhich we knew it wouldnít bethere was still the sheer potential for exhaustion or injury at some point along our cold, 110-mile journey. For the moment, we forced these concerns out of mind. We had planned for such ordeals, and we would face them as they came. For now, the lake was calm and the sky was blue, and we were kids again, eager to embark on the greatest adventure of our lives.
The Adventure Begins
My journal captured part of the story. My camera captured another. My memory must fill in the details. What follows is a mixture of all three. Although they still do not do justice to the whirlwind of emotions and experiences that characterized the trip, they are the best picture I can offer.
Saturday, July 12 Day One:
The ferry docks in Windigo Harbor by 1:00 p.m. It takes an hour to obtain our camping permits, load our kayaks, and don our wetsuits. At 2:00 p.m., we finally set out. The water is astonishingly cold. Much colder than I had remembered. By the time I sit down in the cockpit and pull my legs in, my ankles are burning like frostbite. Monica, the ferry captainís wife, waves to us from the back of the ferry, wishes us luck, and tells us to be safe. We tell her to watch for us in a week. The weather is perfect, but already the VHF radio is broadcasting news of a thunderstorm 20 miles to the north. Fortunately, the storm is moving east with no sign of shifting in our direction. We decide to chance it. The first leg of our trip is relatively short: Two miles due west out of the harbor, then five miles northeast along the outer shore to Hugininís Cove. On our way out of the harbor, we find ourselves battling a stiff headwind. The wind is only blowing at 5 knots, but the harbor funnels it like a wind-tunnel, increasing its pressure and slowing our progress. No big deal. We take a few rests and chat excitedly about what the trip might bring.
Just outside the mouth of Windigo Harbor, we pause for a moment to check out the shipwreck of the America, an old passenger boat that sank decades ago. It makes for a truly eerie spectacle in the crystal clear water: the bow of the ship juts up dramatically from the darkness below and reaches within inches of the surface. Whether youíre superstitious or not, thereís something intensely unsettling about lingering above a shipwreck when youíre about to dare the waves yourself. Hoping that we wonít share the Americaís watery fate, we paddle on. Jesse thinks he hears thunder in the distance. A few minutes later, I hear it too. For the next five miles, we listen to the low rumbling far north of us, hoping the winds donít shift.
At 4:00 p.m., we arrive at Hugininís Cove, greeted by the hikers who bid us farewell at the ferry just two hours earlier. We set up camp and make dinner, then decide to take advantage of the evening light to explore.
The trails near Hugininís Cove are spectacular and endlessly varied. In places, tree roots spill down the trail like a cascading waterfall. In other places, huge boulders frame the path. And in some places, the trail ceases to be a trail at all, forcing us to jump from rock to rock. The colors and species of the trees shift tooóso abruptly that every half mile seems to mark the beginning of an entirely new world.
As we hike the Hugininís Cove trail, we scout the upcoming stretch of sheer cliffs which we will encounter tomorrow. Just as the nautical chart indicated, there are no convenient landings as far as the eye can see. The possibility of poor weather is a real concern, but weíre in high spirits. We pause to snap a few photos on the dramatic rocks, including this picture (right) of me hanging from the lowest cliff we could find. Despite the fact that I'm six feet tall, my feet dangle high above the water. There's absolutely nowhere to land a kayak along this upcoming leg of the journey. It's simply too sheer and inhospitable. We're going to need perfect weather to proceed.
We wake at 4 a.m. The morning is incredibly chilly, but the thought of a hot breakfast gets us moving. By 6 a.m., we set out on the next leg of our journey. The weather is cooperating wonderfullya terrific comfort for this, the most dangerous leg of the journey. The wind is out of the west at 5 to 10 knots, pushing us along steadily without disturbing the glass-calm surface. The day is beautiful and we pause often to take pictures. With no place to land, we are forced to cling precariously to the cliffs for a restroom break. Lashing our kayaks to the rocks, we become temporary rock climbers. Itís not convenient, but it makes for an interesting and amusing experience.
Later, when nature calls again, we are forced to paddle a half-mile out onto the lake, where the Gull Rocks stand alone, jutting out of the water (below). A thousand sea gulls shriek and complain at our presence, but itís a much-needed rest and a photo-op we canít resist.
At 9:45, we reach the mouth of Little Todd Harbor, the end of the long, unbroken stretch of sheer cliffs. There are many other parts of the journey to worry about, but thankfully the one which concerned me most is already behind us, without incident.
Little Todd Harbor is beautiful and intensely inviting. After four hours of paddling, weíve worked up a serious appetite and decide to eat something in order to keep our energy up. Afterward, we explore the Little Todd Harbor campsite area. It looks like a fantastic place to stay, but with so much daylight and perfect weather left, we decide it would be prudent to press on. The further we travel in good weather, the longer we can afford to wait out bad conditions later.
Todd Harbor is only a few miles away. We arrive there by 12:20 in the afternoon and decide that, having come 18 miles, we should camp and rest. No sense straining ourselves and risking an injury. Already, one of the toughest sections of the trip is over. Thanks to the agreeable weather, the sheer cliffs posed no real danger. Our spirits run high. So far, the expedition is going off without a hitch and we are ahead of schedule. With eight hours of daylight left to kill, we set up camp and hang our gear out to dry.
Later, a Ranger appears to tell us that the campsites are poorly marked. It turns out we've set up camp in a group camping zone that has been reserved. The regular campsites are hidden across the cove, behind a line of trees. No matter. It's still early afternoon with plenty of sunshine left. We break camp and stuff everything into our boats to move it over to the new location. The new location turns out to offer a nice bit of shade and a better pad for the tent, as well as a convenient picnic table. When everything is set up again, we decide to go for a hike. I'm fairly certain I can hear a soft hissing sound, not like wind, more like falling water.
We hike west and find a beautiful stream spilling out from the island's interior. The water is wonderfully warm and it spills down the hillside in a beautiful waterfall. We hang around to snap photos for awhile, then head back to camp.
Monday, July 14 Day Three:
I wake up early to take advantage of the outhouse before we break camp. While I'm taking care of nature, I hear a soft tapping or scratching noise at the door, but when I call out, there is no reply. When I come out of the outhouse, I find myself face to face with a mother moose and her calf. I think back to the short introduction we received from the Rangers when we came off the ferry. They warned us that it was dangerous to come too near to a moose, and particularly dangerous to venture between a mother and her calf. But these creatures seem unshaken, so I wait until they've moved a short distance away and then I head back up the trail to camp. A few other campers are already awake and gathering to take pictures. I wake Jesse and tell him to grab his camera, then shoot back down the trail with my own SLR in tow. This is our first glimpse of moose, and I don't want to miss it, but by the time I get back, the creatures have already wandered back into the woods. No matter. I'm thrilled to have seen my first moose in the wild.
After a quick breakfast, Jesse and I load the kayaks and head out. The bay looks calm and favorable again, but the instant we pass through the mouth to the exterior, we find ourselves assaulted by winds and sizable waves. The shoreline is still very rugged, but not nearly so inhospitable as the previous leg, so we decide to press on. At first the waves are only building to two feet, with some confused seas forming in pockets where the shoreline is vertical enough to deflect the larger waves back at us, against the wind. Fifteen minutes later, the waves have steadily built to an average height of four feet, with unusually steep faces. It must be the influence of the surrounding topography. Whatever the case, we rise and plunge with surprising force and abruptness, taking a hard blast of freezing water in the face each time the kayaks bury their noses in a passing wave.
It is here that the scene which began this article occurred. I spend the next two hours marveling at the way that Jesse and his kayak keep vanishing behind the waves. I've paddled in surf on the Atlantic Ocean, and dealt with confused seas at the outer edges of the Apostle Islands, but I don't know if Jesse has ever paddled in conditions quite like these. I keep a close eye on him and begin to wonder whether our rescue practice will do any good under these conditions, since neither of us has had any chance to practice rescues in waves this rough. Besides the wave action, the cold would make it hard to focus or function. I try to imagine solutions to worst-case scenarios so that I will have a confident plan of action if the need arises. Fortunately, neither of us falters. Two hours later, we find a safe place to land for a rest, but the combination of cold water and screeching wind forces us to rush back to the mild warmth of the kayak cockpit again.
Back on the water, we approach Amygdaloid Channel which funnels the waves together, but also molds them into a more comfortable, regular wavelength. They are easier to anticipate now, better aligned with our course, and they stop tugging so abruptly at the stern. Even so, I'm concerned what will happen when we reach the far end of the channel, where the wind will be more concentrated. After a quick discussion with Jesse, we pass through a small keyhole behind Belle Isle, just halfway up Amygdaloid Channel. It turns out to be a terrific move. The water and wind are much, much calmer inside Robinson Bayat least for the moment. A soft rain begins to fall, and it suddenly feels like we're paddling on a small backcountry lake in Montana or Colorado
Half an hour later, as we near the tip of Belle Isle, the winds out of the west are raging again. We seek shelter in a tiny cove at the eastern edge of Belle Isle and make lunch. Jesse asks for a longer rest, so after I finish eating, I turn on the VHF radio. A small craft advisory has been issued, along with warnings about violent, gusting winds. By the time we leave the cove, the sheer force of the wind is astonishing. We decide to cut across to Lane Cove, where I've noted a portage trail on the map. As we cross perpendicular to the wind, we have to lean into it to avoid being blown over. Fortunately, the short run up Robinson bay prevents the waves from building very tall. Even so, it's a hard battle to reach Lane Cove. By the time we get there, we're both exhausted. Luckily, the GPS has brought us right to the foot of the portage trail. It's obscured, but easily found after a quick search.
After much discussion, we decide to portage through into Stockly Bay, where the island should offer much better shelter from the wind. It's also a nice chance to stretch our legs and experience the novelty of portaging a kayak. The first few feet of the trail are extremely steep, but we manage it fine by carrying the kayaks one at a time. The portage is only a few hundred feet, but the difference on the other side is like night and day. Stockly Bay is as calm as can be, and it offers much easier paddling. Jesse has been complaining of pain in his arm, so I've given him my lightweight carbon fiber paddle to help take some of the strain off each stroke. I'm back to using my trusty Aquabound Expedition AMT, heavy but reliable.
As we pass into Five Finger Bay, we head southeast to another portage trail that leads over into Duncan Bay. The winds are picking up again as we arrive at the trail and begin the portage. Jesse is talking about ending the trip, complaining of pain in his arm and a touch of exhaustion. We decide that the weather may be contributing to the problem, as the wind has forced us to exert rigorous corrective efforts all day long. The VHF radio is forecasting an approaching storm.
It's late afternoon, so our options are either to paddle a short jaunt to the campground at the southwest tip of Duncan Bay, or head northeast to the site below Lookout Louise. Neither choice seems to appeal to Jesse, so we decide to pitch our tent right where we stand, in the middle of the portage trail. No one else will be passing through in this weather anyway, and here we are well-sheltered from the water. The thick, surrounding stand of young pine trees thins out the force of the wind, as well. Without knowing what the other campgrounds look like, and not wanting to exacerbate Jesse's arm strain, it seems best to stay put.
After a quick, light meal of snacks, Jesse says he is thinking seriously about leaving the trip when we get to Rock Harbor tomorrow. He can wait there for a day and then catch a ride back on the Voyageur II. I don't say much about it, but after the heavy waves we battled this morning, I'm more than a little unsettled by the idea of finishing the remaining half of the circumnavigation alone. If I had planned for it, I would have been ready to face the idea of voyaging solo, but having the task thrust upon me so unexpectedly raises all kinds of anxieties about whether I'm properly equipped, whether I can manage the journey safely by myself, which plans need to be reconsidered, and so on.
By 5 p.m., Jesse has already rolled into the tent and gone to sleep, leaving me with four hours of daylight to pace around and consider what I should do if he chooses to quit. Our tent is pitched near the Duncan Bay side of the portage trail. I walk back down to the other side and take a seat, staring out over Five Finger Bay. I'm glad to be alone right now. My stomach is doing flips. I'm not sure why exactly. I've gone through some hairy solo trips before, even on Lake Superior, but something about the ruggedness of this island or its cold, violent waves has worked its way into my nerves and thrown my confidence off kilter like nothing else I've experienced. Maybe it's just the strain of fighting the wind all day. The cold, howling wind off the lake does have a way of making loneliness seem lonelier.
I take a few deep breaths and watch the clouds beginning to gather in the sky. For the moment, the weather calms and I calm too. It's fine, I tell myself. My skills are up to finishing this by myself. I just have to proceed a little slower, a little safer than before. I don't remember the rest of that moment, except that I spent the last hours of the day seated by the water, watching the storm come in. Around 9 p.m., I came back to the tent, ate a few snacks, and climbed into my sleeping bag. Jesse woke up just long enough to say that his arm still hurt, that he wasn't feeling well, and that maybe he would feel better after enough sleep. Then he was out again.
I would have slept like the dead, but I was roused around midnight by a violent storm tearing through our campsite. Every minute or so, lightning illuminated the tent and the ground trembled under a violent crack of thunder. I began to wonder whether the young pines around us were stout enough not to collapse under the pressure of the wind, and half expeceted a tree to come hurtling through the tent wall at any moment. I was glad we had taken steps to secure the kayaks and to guy-out the tent walls. I listened to the storm for five or ten minutes and then the heaviness in my limbs got the better of me again and pulled back to sleep.
Tuesday, July 15 Day Four:
Today we will round the northeast point of the island, reputed by many to be the most exposed and dangerous leg of the journey. I'm less worried about it than I was about the stretch from Huginin's Cove to Little Todd, but it's a close second on my list of anxieties so I wake early to take advantage of the calmer morning air. The winds on Superior generally build into the afternoon, so early morning is our best chance to sneak past the more difficult legs of the journeyespecially now, in the calm early hours after last night's storm.
Jesse has been sleeping continuously for 11 hours, but when I try to wake him at 4 a.m., he's reluctant and complains that it's still too early. I decide to get my gear together while he sleeps in, but the smell of my breakfast and the sounds of packing entice him to rise a short while later. A small dinner seems to have left him with a healthy appetite this morning. I ask about his arm. It's still hurting him. I feel a pang of concern that his next words will be "I'm quitting when we get to Rock Harbor." He doesn't say anything, but I've already decided it's important not to push him to continue on. Forcing himself to finish the trip on a strained arm could be far more dangerous than finishing the trip alone, so I encourage him "not to worry" if he would like to end the trip at Rock Harbor. "I'll be fine on my own," I tell him. "So you're definitely going to finish no matter what?" he asks. "Definitely," I say. The moment I say it, I realize it's true. I really am committed to finishing, and my characteristic solo-paddling confidence is coming back.
Shortly after 5:30, we're on the water in Duncan Bay, approaching the northeast tip. The water is glassy smooth, with long, low waves rolling up behind us with a soft, but powerful motion that reminds us of the sheer power of the lake. As we round the tip, I thank God for our good fortune with the weather, especially in light of Jesse's injury. Last night, I had worried I might have to tow him to Rock Harbor in treacherous conditions, but he seems to be doing well on his own with the help of my carbon fiber paddle. Now he volunteers a comforting thought: "I've been thinking... If we slow our pace a little, and take plenty of rests, and you don't mind me using your carbon paddle at least for the rest of today, I think I can make it all the way around with you." I question him to make sure he doesn't feel pressured to continue. I don't want him taking any unnecessary chances just because he's worried about me finishing alone. We decide to wait and see how he feels when we get to Rock Harbor. Already, both of us are dreaming of a hot cooked meal to replace the dehydrated dinners we've been eating so far.
We arrive at Rock Harbor too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. To our dismay, the dining hall is closed. Luckily, the showers are always open. After three days in neoprene wetsuits, we are delighted to pay the excessive price for a hot shower and the rare joy of changing into dry, clean clothes. It's only a temporary relief, of course. I know I'll be heading out again soon, but it feels so good to be warm and clean for awhile. Jesse's arm is feeling better after a shower and his spirits are rising when we discover that the diner cook is willing to fix us up a hot meal. (I can't begin to describe how good a fresh hamburger tastes after three days of nothing but dehydrated meals and cold snacks!) An hour later, as we contemplate the journey ahead, Jesse decides to continue on with the trip. So, with our bellies full, our morale high, and half of the journey already behind us, we don our clammy wetsuits again. Within seconds, the stink we paid so much to wash away is back. That's the nature of neoprene.
An hour later the wind is beginning to rise again and the waves are building. We pass through a long chain of islands, trying to stick to sheltered locations as long as we can. After we pass the soutwest tip of Mott Island we decide to head straight for Saginaw Point instead of sticking to the shoreline. As soon as we pass into the open, beyond the shelter of the island, the wind and waves take on renewed force. I don't want to tax Jesse's arm too much, but he says he feels ready to keep going. A few minutes later, the wind has picked up so much that I have to ask again. His temper is getting short. "Stop asking!" he barks. "I said I'm fine. Let's just get there."
From the irritation in his voice, the haste of his paddling, and the increasing silence since we left Rock Harbor, I'm beginning to wonder if Jesse is regretting his decision to continue on. Halfway across to Saginaw Point, the waves build to two or three feet. The pace is strenuous, but both of us sense the importance of getting across before conditions deteriorate any further. Staying together, however, is not as easy as it sounds. Jesse keeps falling far behindtoo far. I try to hang back near him, but I can't. It's all I can do to keep my kayak from surfing forward on the faces of the waves. I come to a dead stop several times to let him catch up, but it's difficult to hold steady for long. Each time I stop, the waves blast across the stern and wash across my lower back, bleeding through the neoprene and numbing my torso. My whole body stiffens. It's a reflex I can't control. Balancing becomes a real challenge without the ability to stay loose.
Even worse, after so many hours of exertion, my body is too tired to keep warm. I'm beginning to shake with early symptoms of hypothermia. My lower back feels frostbitten, my fingers are starting to ache, and with each wave, the cold puddle of water on my seat grows. My thighs and my heels are numb too. I keep twisting to look over my shoulder at Jesse. No matter how many times I backpaddle, he seems to fall further and further behind. I don't want to risk turning the kayak around in these conditions, but after awhile, I decide that I must. I backtrack and pass near. He makes a comment about getting too far ahead, and I tell him I'm trying to stay with him, but he needs to time his stroke with the waves so he can surf along with me. He doesn't seem to understand, but keeps chugging along steadily to his own rhythm.
Within minutes, I've passed him again, but by backpaddling gently at the top of each wave, I manage to stay within earshot. Saginaw Point is close. I'm too numb to stop and endure the waves anymore, so I keep paddling and reach the shore with Jesse about 50 yards behind. The approach is rough, with the waves spilling hard against the rocky shore. Despite the cold, I opt to jump out in waist deep water and walk the kayak onto the beach to prevent damage to the hull. I takes a tricky bit of balancing and well-timed acrobatics, but it turns out to be a smart move. The shore is chock full of jagged rocks and crashing waves.
The instant we reach shore, Jesse starts unpacking his boat. I ask what he's doing, but he doesn't respond. I ask again, and he picks up an armful of gear and starts hiking straight into the woods. "Where are you going?" I ask. This time he replies: "To find a way to portage through." Portage through? What is he talking about? I run to catch up to him and ask why he wants to portage. "Well, there's no way we're getting back out that way!" he shouts, gesturing toward the waves piling up on the shore. I try to reason with him: "I know it looks rough, but we can launch back out through that. I can do it. You can do it. We just have to keep the kayaks pointed into the waves. It looks worse than it is, but trust me, we'll be fine." He doesn't say anything. He just keeps marching into the woods, climbing resolutely over the steep rocks in his way.
On the back side of the cove, the shoreline is a sheer cliff again. "See?" I say, "We'll be much better off just paddling back out of the cove." Jesse is shaken and upset, I can tell, but I'm getting frustrated now too. I can't do anything to alleviate his fears and concerns if he won't express them. He says he needs time to think and sits down on the rocks for a long time without talking. I busy myself with snapping pictures, wondering what has got him so rattled. Maybe he was shaken by the fact that I paddled so far ahead of him during the crossing, but there's no sense trying to explain it to him now. He's clearly upset. I hope that some time to think will calm him down.
Fifteen minutes later, Jesse picks up his stuff and heads back to his kayak. He says he's ready to go. I don't question him, but I do volunteer a few tips about getting back out of the cove safely. Back on the water, he says he thought the launching was going to be much more difficult. He seems in better spirits again, and I'm glad. Even so, we continue on in silence for awhile.
By mid-afternoon, we reach Chippewa Harbor, which is lined with smooth, gigantic boulders that soak up the sunlight and give off the most wonderful, wonderful warmth. We climb on them eagerly. I ask Jesse if he wants to camp here or continue on, but he won't give me a straight answer. I'm annoyed because I'd like to know if I should start setting up camp. He just unpacks his sleeping pad and climbs on top of a large boulder to take a nap. I decide to pass the time reclining on a rock, soaking up the warmth. Heat is a rare and precious commodity on Lake Superior, and this is one of the only times on the entire trip that my body actually manages to recover its normal core temperature. I feel like a new person again: no shakes, no stiff fingers, no aching musclesjust warm, soothing heat! What bliss!
Twenty minutes later, Jesse packs up his sleeping pad and abruptly announces he's ready to push on. It seems like false enthusiasm, perhaps even a bit of embitterment about the pace of the trip, but I take him at his word and make preparations to leave. Back on the water, the wind has shifted to our backs: a gentle, even breeze that casts 6-inch ripples against our sterns, pushing us oh-so-kindly on our way. The sky is perfectly clear, the evening air is reasonably warm, and the sun is on our skins. Lake Superior has taken on a completely different demeanor, and her timing could not be better. Our spirits lift as we paddle on down toward Malone Bay, another eight miles away. It takes us three hours, but the time passes quickly. We start telling stories and jokes, chatting like best friends again, and our morale could not be higher. As we enter Malone Bay, it's starting to get very late. By 8 p.m., the air has grown noticeably chillier and Jesse is starting to have trouble keeping warm. As we look for the Malone Bay campsite, we come across a stream feeding out into the lake. When we get out of the kayaks, we notice the water is 15 or 20 degrees warmer here, no doubt because the stream feeds off of one of the warmer interior lakes. The campsite is further down, but we find it with ease.
When we arrive, the shelters and campsites are already taken. We ask the three men who are using the three-sided shelter if we can set up camp on the grassy field nearby, and they agree. It turns out they're kayakers, too, and they're also attempting a circumnavigation. They ran into the same weather troubles as we did, so they chose to come down by way of the interior lakes and portage routes. A storm is in the forecast, so they've decided not to cross Siskiwit Bay, and their kayaks have already been portaged back up to Siskiwit Lake so they can follow the interior lakes back to Rock Harbor in the morning. They advise us to do the same, but I know better. I've been keeping an eye on the weather. The VHF radio has yet to broadcast anything decisive, but my gut tells me the storm will blow over.
By the time the tent is set up, it's 9:15 p.m. and almost pitch black outside. Jesse and I cook a quick meal, climb into our sleeping bags, and sleep like the dead. It's been a long day with many, many miles of progress. We've earned a good rest.
Wednesday, July 16 Day Five:
As usual, I'm awake at 4 a.m., but after the previous day's rigor and late arrival to camp, I decide to let Jesse sleep in. I climb out of the tent to discover that a very bold squirrel has chewed a hole through my mesh deck bag and helped himself to my trail mix. I try to shoo him away, but he won't budge. I rap him on the head with my hand, but he still won't leave. Amazed, I leave him to enjoy his spoils and snap a quick picture to commemorate the occasion.
Jesse is up by 5:30. The breeze off Siskiwit Bay is already starting to build, but we both want to see Siskiwit Lake, so we hike through the woods just in time to catch a spectacular view of the sun rising over the interior lake. The water from Siskiwit Lake spills down the island and pours out into Siskiwit Bay. It's the source of the warm undercurrent we discovered as we approached the bay last evening. After half an hour of snapping photos and enjoying the sunrise, we head back to break camp.
At 7 a.m., we are just getting ready to launch our kayaks onto Siskiwit Bay. Jesse and I decide to cut straight across the bay to Point Houghton. It means five miles of open-water paddling with no shelter from the wind, but it will shave many miles off the alternative route of following the shore. As we prepare to leave, one of the kayakers we met is pacing frantically back and forth, muttering "Get going!" under his breath. It's clear he thinks we've wasted too much of the early morning calm already. He's probably right, but I felt it was better not to push Jesse very hard this morningespecially not after the tensions from yesterday. He seems to have appreciated the slower start, but even he seems a bit antsy as the breeze continues picking up.
Half an hour later, we're out in the open heading across the bay. Jesse asks to stop and eat something already. I know his metabolism is high, but I'm feeling impatient as the wind builds. This is not a good place to get caught out in the open. Even so, I stifle my irritation and take out a PowerBar to snack on. Calmly, I mention that we'll have to eat fast and take few rests in order to get across to Point Houghton as quickly as possible.
Three hours later, we're nearing Point Houghton, but it has been a long, hard battle against an intense wind. The waves are coming head on, which makes for a cold, damp ride, but is much easier to manage than the following waves we've been accustomed to so far. We put up the hoods on our rain jackets, feather our paddles, lean into the wind, and keep paddling. There's only about half a mile left to shore, but it takes all of 20 minutes to get there in these conditions.
When we finally arrive, we're exhausted and cold, but the sun is shining. We hunker down against a ridgeline to break the wind, and lay our gear out to dry in the sunlight. The crossing was tough, but the opportunity to dry out is a welcome reprieve from the bitter cold. Unfortunately, the biting flies love our brightly colored gear and our exposed skin. We have to keep pacing around and flailing our arms during lunch in order to keep from being eaten alive. Bug spray helps a little, but not much, so we are finally forced to zip up our wetsuits again.
Point Houghton is at the edge of the "blackout" zone where campers are not allowed to venture in order to leave space for the wolves and other wildlife to roam undisturbed. Nearly the entire southwest quarter of the island has been blacked out, but we think we can paddle around it before evening, so we press on. The waves are very big as we round Point Houghtonsome in excess of five feetbut they are smooth and rolling, not steep. We rise and plunge over most of them without concern, except for those rare moments when the bow dives unexpectedly into a passing trough and blasts us with cold spray. We carry on this way for two miles. Jesse is still not saying much, but he does offer that his arm is handling the strain well. Meanwhile, although I don't yet notice it, something is very wrong with me. For at least an hour, I've been marveling at the odd way that the water and the horizon look slanted, like we're paddling uphill. Somehow, I don't recognize this to be a problem until I finally mention it to Jesse:
"Isn't that weird?" I say.
"Isn't what weird?" he asks.
"The way the water looks."
"It looks like we're paddling uphill. Don't you see that?"
"You don't think it looks like we're paddling uphill?" My voice is full of disbelief. From where I sit, it's so obvious that the horizon is pitched at a steep angle and the waves are bent.
"Dude, what are you talking about?" he asks. There's real concern in his voice.
Finally, it dawns on me that my spatial perception is seriously out of whack. Now I begin to realize that my balance is also deeply affected. I'm teetering from side to side far more than usual, and my sensation of the waves beneath me does not quite match the actual motion of the boat. Whatever the cause, it puts us both in danger, especially in these waves. "Something's wrong with me," I tell Jesse. "I have vertigo or something. I've had it for at least an hour, I just didn't realize it. Honestly, I've been staring at these stupid waves for at least an hour thinking they're screwy, not me." Jesse laughs, but we both agree that we should stop.
Ten minutes later, the waves have grown steeperat least they seem that way to me. Thankfully, we're approaching the mouth of Little Boat Harbor, the last decent landing spot for at least two miles. We land, and the instant my feet touch the ground, I realize my vertigo is much, much worse than I thought. The horizon is now pitched at a 45 degree angle, and my entire body wants to hurl itself to the right when I walk. It takes serious concentration just to stand still, but fifteen minutes on shore clears the problem right up.
I ask Jesse if he thinks we should camp here instead of pressing on. He says he doesn't care. It's all up to me. I tell him I'm not certain. I've never had symptoms like these before. I know we should stay put until they go away, but I don't know if they will come back again or not. For safety's sake, it's probably best to stop, even though it's still early in the afternoon. I'm annoyed, though, by Jesse's refusal to voice his opinion. Since it's left to me, I decide in favor of the safe choice: staying put. Now we must decide where exactly to camp.
A quick glance at the cove shows piles of driftwood and felled trees, all laid flat in the same direction as if by torrential winds and waves. The standing trees look fairly old and battered, too, as if it wouldn't take much to bring them down. With the winds building, I ask Jesse whether he thinks we ought to camp under the shelter of the trees, or in the grassy clearing where there is less shelter, but also less chance of getting crushed by a falling tree. Once again, he says he doesn't care. I ask him just to think about it and tell me his opinion which spot seems safer, but he refuses, saying "I'm not an expert about these things. I don't know." It turns into a fight. I raise my voice and tell him just to use his head, to give me an informed opinion, to help me make a decision instead of constantly shoving the burden of our safety off onto my shoulders. "All I'm asking for is a little help here!" I growl. "We have two brains, and I think we should use them both!" He refuses to speculate, saying (again), that he doesn't know and he'll trust whatever I decide. So I decide for us: We set up camp in the clearing, but leave the kayaks near the shore. After unpacking the hatches, we weigh them down with heavy rocks in case another storm sweeps through during the night.
With the tent set up, there's a palpable tension between Jesse and I. He climbs into the tent and I go for a walk to give him some space. We're both frustrated by the prospect of staying put, with eight hours of daylight left to burn. The afternoon crawls on, but I tell myself it's better than pushing on at the risk of having my vertigo come back. I pass part of the afternoon monitoring weather forecasts on the VHF radio and watching the waves roll in from the south. The wind is really blowing pretty good now, so it's probably best that we keep off the lake anyway. The section that lies ahead is fairly sheer and inhospitable again, so I pray we'll have calm weather in the morning.
Jesse has made several casual references to feeling homesick since the second morning of the trip. I think the experience is really starting to get to him now. We've only been out for about five days, but Lake Superior has a way of intensifying your loneliness and sense of isolation like no other body of water I've ever paddled. In some ways, I like that part of the experience, and it's what keeps me coming back. But I understand the strain it's placing on Jesse's spirits. I've felt it plenty of times before, and I feel it now too. When I return to the tent in late afternoon, he finally breaks his silence and confesses a strong urge to go hometo get a hot meal, to sleep in a warm bed, to be around familiar people. "I know you're here with me too," he says, "I can't explain it, but I just feel really, really alone here. I think this is just too much for me. I don't think I'm this kind of paddler. I don't think this is my idea of fun. Maybe for a day or two, but this is just too long and too far." I don't say much. I just nod and say: "I understand. Tomorrow, we'll get you home."
The rest of the evening passes without event. We spend time chatting, and cooking, and speculating on the weather. It sounds like a storm could come through, but I'm optimistic. In any case, Jesse is asleep well before dark, and I follow soon after. I hope tomorrow wil be a better, brighter day.
Thursday, July 17 Day Six:
After the increasing strain on our partnership, I decide we need to change our fortune this morning. I am up at 3 a.m., breaking into my emergency stash of pancake mix. By 3:30, I hear Jesse's voice from inside his sleeping bag: "Dude, whatever you're cooking smells really good." When he sits up, there's a heaping pile of pancakes waiting to be eaten. I tell him to help himself and we feast like starved men. It is remarkable what a stack of pancakes does for the morale. From here on out, I vow to carry pancake mix with me on every trip, and to save it for moments like this one. In any case, it works. I tell Jesse that I've looked over the map and, if the weather is favorable, I think we can make it back to Windigo in time for him to catch a ride back on the Wenonah this afternoon. He perks up at the thought and breaks camp with renewed enthusiasm.
Just a little after 4 a.m., before the sun has even broken over the horizon, we're already on the water. The lake is glassy smooth again. There's a cold breeze, but it does little to stir the water or hinder our progress. As the sun rises behind us, our shadows stretch toward our destination as if they, too, cannot wait to get there. But at once our eagerness dissipates. There's no denying that this is a beautiful morningso still and so perfectly quiet except for the low hush of the breeze sweeping across the water. It's one of those rare moments that are finer than a postcard and more stirring than music. In spite of our original expectations, this is really what our journey has been for: this moment. It is impossible to describe, but it is a moment that cannot be earned. It must be given, freely, through the unexpected generosity of nature: when the morning itself wishes you warm passage and kindles your spirits with early, golden rays; when the breeze presses softly at your back and kisses your cheek like an old friend; and when the tempestuous lady of this greatest of lakes relaxes her temper to bless you with safe travel.
Seven miles later, we stop for a quick snack at Long Point. The beach is beautiful herethe first sand we've seen on the whole island. Of course, even here, it's not sand but coarsely-ground rock, but it's a welcome improvement over the jagged rocks we have grown accustomed to seeing. The morning keeps growing more beautiful. We don't waste much time. After a quick stretch of the legs and a restroom break, we're back on the water.
The previous day's tensions between Jesse and I have completely evaporated. We are back to feeling like two young boys on a great adventure. We spend a good part of the morning singing old songs and inventing new ones. The miles fall away behind us as we pass The Head, Rainbow Point, Cumberland Point, and pass into Grace Harbor. At long last, we are nearing the mouth of Windigo Harbor.
As Jesse passes me, I stop him, saying: "Listen! Listen! Do you hear that?"
He freezes, cocks his head, and listens intently for a few seconds. "Hear what?" he asks.
"Exactly! It's the sound of pure and total silence. Remember it. It's the last time we'll get to hear it for awhile, now that our trip is coming to an end."
Jesse grins and keeps listening. A minute passes and then we both start paddling again.
It is impossible to describe the cumulative experience of that morning, except to say that we were exhilarated not only by the indescribable beauty of the tranquil lake, but also by an impending sense of accomplishmenta kind of victory over the dangers of the island that so many had warned us not to attempt. We had paid our dues to Lady Superior, and she rewarded us, generously, with a magnificent welcome home. Despite four hours of non-stop paddling, we feel unusually energetic. I joke about racing each other back to the dock at Windigo. Jesse says he doesn't have the energy for that, and I admit that I don't either. But then, minutes later, we are racing (and laughing)expending more energy than either of us thought we had.
We arrive at Windigo by 9 a.m., with plenty of time for Jesse to get a hot shower, change into clean clothes, and pack up his kayak to go home. I decide to remain on the island until Saturday so I can meet up with some other friends who were hiking the island while we paddled around it. Of course, the bigger reason I stay is for the island itself. I almost can't bear to leave it. It's already worked itself very, very deeply into my heart.
Jesse helps me haul my gear down to one of the three-sided shelters at the Windigo campsite. It's the first available shelter I've found despite traveling all the way around the island. Jesse laughs that he never had the chance to use one, but says he would rather go home than stay to share the privilege with me. Later that afternoon, I help him load his kayak onto the Wenonah and bid him farewell. I spend the rest of the afternoon drinking chocolate milk at the Windigo general store, and then hiking the long trail down to Huginin's Cove, where we camped our first night on the island. It's neat to see the cove again now that I've come full circle. I snap a few photos of the cove and a bull moose I stumbled across in the woods, and then head back. Back at camp, I find my friends returning from their hike of the island a day sooner than expected. Everyone is in high spirits, and we trade stories of our adventures on the island.
Two days later, on Saturday, my friends and I pack up to catch the Wenonah ferry ride home. I think they're glad to be heading back, but I feel genuinely sad. I don't know what more I would like from the island, but something in me wants to stay hereperhaps even to paddle all the way around again. I'll come back someday, I tell myself. Then, with a surprisingly heavy heart, I bid the island goodbye. I almost feel like crying. It's strange, but wonderful too. Never have I experienced a trip like this one. Never have I felt so attached to a particular place. I'm sure it's the strange mixture of fear and respect and beauty and awe that the island inspires. Whatever the case, I know I will be back.
Advice to Other Paddlers
Isle Royale remains the single most defining experience in my paddling career. I have taken much longer trips, with far more rigorous exertion in far wilder conditions, but no other trip has ever matched the challenges, dangers, and rewards (physical, psychological, or emotional) of Isle Royale. It is a little known paddling gem of the midwest: remote enough to avoid crowds, close enough to be reached on a reasonable budget, sufficiently challenging and beautiful to rival any paddling destination on earth. Unlike any other place I've paddled, there are long, long stretches of Isle Royale that demand absolute respect. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of dedication, and a strong partnership (or a very comitted solo paddler) to paddle around the island successfully. But it's also important to remember that the piercing cold and famously unpredictable temperament of the lake can render even the best skills useless.
Whatever your skill level, keep in mind that paddling Isle Royale is not like paddling flatwater, or whitewater, or the ocean. The cold and the unusually severe shoreline warrant far greater respect than a trip of this magnitude would normally seem to require. I'm convinced that the outcome of most of the life or death scenarios which could arise on Isle Royale will be decided by planning, more than by skill. If you push forward when conditions are less than ideal, or linger too long out in the open, you will get more than you bargain for, and you will learn (very quickly) how easily the chilly embrace of the lake can dull the sharpest skills, erode the stoutest confidence, and overwhelm the most resolute paddler. If you dare to paddle around the island, be smart. Know the dangers. Know the weather. Know yourself. It's true that several paddlers have made successful circumnavigations of the island, but many of them were blessed with unusually good weather; others knew when to wait out poor conditions; still others probably endured an uncomfortably close brush with death, and wished they had never dared to attempt the feat at all. Whatever the case, never expect that you will have the same good fortune. Plan for the worst, expect a lot of layovers, never underestimate the temper of the lake, and always give preference to the safest route.
For me, the trip was psychologically taxing on several occasions, but it was also deeply rewarding in many, many ways. For my partner, the experience seemed fairly overwhelming at the time, but in retrospect, I think he now considers it one of his better accomplishments also. I had the good luck of having a very good friend for a partner. The strains on our partnership were offset by a strong foundation of friendship, a long-standing sense of mutual trust, and a good familiarity with each other's personality quirks. If you go, make sure you go with an experienced partner with a real understanding of, and commitment to, the task ahead. Be sure to take a few expeditions together elsewhere first. Make sure you have a strong partnership before you put it to the test on the Isle of Kings.
Let me finish by mentioning the few things that I would do differently if I could do it over again:
First, take thick neoprene socksyour feet will thank you from the first moment you step into the icy water.
Second, take a wetsuit or drysuit along. I opted for a wetsuit because I think drysuits get too hot in the sun, and I prefer to be able to regulate my body temp by splashing water on the neoprene. In retrospect, however, I might be tempted to take a drysuit just to avoid the awful, early-morning experience of climbing into cold, clammy neoprene. Whatever I chose to wear, it would be equipped with a relief zipper. At the time, my wetsuit didn't have one, and Jesse's didn't either. Let me tell you, there is nothing worse when you're cold than stopping to relieve yourself, but first having to take off your raincoat, your PFD, your sprayskirt, and then stripping to the waist (in a chilly wind, no less) just to pee. It's cold, it's frustrating, and it's time-consuming. It annoyed me so much that the first purchase I made when I got back from Isle Royale was to buy a new wetsuit with a relief zipper.
Third, carry some kind of "morale food" and save it for a time when your spirits are running low and really need a boost. For me, it was pancake mix (see "Day Six" above), and I honestly think it saved the trip for Jesse and I. We still would have finished, but not nearly in such high spirits, nor with such a renewed sense of friendship. When your partnership begins to strain, it's easy to get petty and pick fights with each other. On Isle Royale, that could be catastrophic. Do your best to push pettiness aside, and do something nice for your partner when times get tough: break out the "morale food" and fix yourselves a spirit-boosting feast! (I've carried pancake mix on every trip since!)
Fourth, take plenty of warm layers. I've paddled Lake Superior many, many times, but I always forget how very, very cold it can be. At night, the temperatures may regularly drop into the low 30s, even in the middle of summer. Take a warm sleeping bag and some warm, cushy camping clothes (a thick fleece, wool socks, a stocking cap, etc.). In fact, consider trying all of my Cold-Weather Paddling Tips. Opportunities to build a fire are few and far between on Isle Royale. In fact, we didn't notice a single, permissible fire pit anywhere along our journey.
Fifth, gather as much "local knowledge" as you can. Get your hands on nautical chart 14976 and study it carefully, but also make a concerted effort to learn as much as possible about each region of the island. The map shows the general topography, but it cannot show you how viable it is to land at any given spot. You need to do your homework. Find out the prevailing weather patterns for the time of year you plan to go. Find out if each cove is lined with sheer cliffs, giant boulders, or tiny pebbles. Find out if a portage trail is actually a trail, or more like a rock-climbing course. Plot distances carefully, with a realistic idea of your own stamina. Make sure that a particular beach will still be there if the lake is higher (or lower) than usual. These considerations are important on any trip, but they are especially vital on Isle Royale.
Finally, start each morning early. If I had been paddling solo, I would have been on the water by 4 or 4:30 a.m. every morning. As it was, we were on the water no later than 5:30 or 6 a.m. during most mornings of the trip. In any case, the sooner you get on the lake, the calmer the wind tends to be, so it's smart to start paddling just as the sky begins to lighten. Yes, it sucks to wake up early to an icy wind and wet paddling clothes. Yes, it sucks to pack up the kayak in the dark or near-dark of such ridiculously early morning hours. Yes, it takes a serious mental effort just to pry yourself from your sleeping bag. But you are rewarded, in return, with calmer paddling, beautiful sunrises, early arrivals to campsites, and (with a little luck) several long, warm hours of sunlight to spend relaxing or hiking on dry land at the end of the day.
Other Isle Royale Links
If you're considering a trip to Isle Royale, here are a few of the more interesting links I've found. The first two are excellent resources to use as you begin planning your trip. The remaining two are detailed trip reports describing two very different ways to explore the island by kayak: one by solo circumnavigation, the other by guided tour.
- Isle Royale: The official homepage for Isle Royale, hosted by the National Park Service.
- IsleRoyale.Info: An excellent resource for information about Isle Royale, including pictures, trip reports, and a "Web Board" for contacting others who have visited the island.
- The Eye of the Wolf: The story of Carl Strang's solo circumnavigation around the island.
- A Visit to Isle Royale: The story of a guided kayaking tour on Isle Royale, with some advice about preparations.