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I scanned the horizon of Lake Superior with excitement, my impatience growing every time I even thought that I saw the island on the horizon. It had been four long years since we had last been there, and I had dreamed of going back every day since. Finally, after I had lost all hope of seeing and resigned myself to the thought that we were going to be out on Lake Superior, like a giant it slowly appeared out of the mist and my heart skipped a beat as I realized the adventure had begun. Isle Royale waited for me like a mother waiting for her child to come back home.
When we got to the dock, we began unpacking the boat and getting our gear together for what would be a trip of a lifetime. My little brother and my dad were taking my canoe together for the trip. We had 4 others with us, a father and son, and two other former boy scouts from my dadís troop, itching to get a shot at the island. That left me alone to myself in the kayak, which was more then alright for me. Most of these guys couldnít handle the amount of fishing I was planning on doing, and being able to sit out by my lonesome in the middle of a lake that few ever saw, enjoying a cigar and watching the sun go downÖ I can definitely think of worse things.
After we got most of the equipment unpacked, one of the staff went over the rules and regulations of the park, most importantly the leave no trace laws. These are very important to keeping the island in the condition that it is in. Basically these rules state that if you bring it in, you pack it in, and anything you find on the island (IE: a moose antler) you take a picture with and then leave there. This is very important to keeping the stability of the island in check. Without them, the ecosystem would have a very good chance of crashing and wiping out an entire population of moose or especially the ever-present but rarely seen wolves, which would be a tragedy to say the least. It is a very unique system on the island, with nothing quite like it anywhere in the world, and it would be a damn shame to see it wiped out by the carelessness of a few other humans who were to lazy to pick up their garbage and hike it out.
My group was very excited to see the moose for some reason, I myself wasnít that interested, the first trip that we went on we saw more moose in a day then most people see in 10 years, and I knew that they were big and better left alone if we could get away with it. The first trip, one of the guys we went with found a moose horn lying on the ground next to our camp that wasnít there the night before. Scary to think how such a large animal can get so close and you wouldnít even realize it until he was right on top of you. After some picture taking and explaining to him that no, we really couldnít take the horn with us (take pictures and leave remember), we went along with our day. But needless to say, after an experience like that, I wasnít too worried about whether or not I would see them.
We caught a boat to Chippewa Harbor, and so the adventure truly began. It was a slow paddle through the harbor, taking everything in and realizing that we were finally there. The water was crystal clear; you could see the bottom in pretty much all but the deepest parts. Itís a crazy feeling, looking about 20-40 feet down and still being able to see everything as clear as day. We made our way to the end of the basin towards our first portage, and also arguably one of the worst portages of the trip. While itís only a little longer then half a mile long, it has many hills, loose rocks, roots and other things to trip you up and make you lose your footing. On top of that, doing it on your first day at the island and as the first portage, really leaves you unprepared for it, even if youíve done it once before. The euphoria caused by being on the island quickly fades, and you grit your teeth and begin one of the worst half miles of your life. And if that wasnít enough, the mosquitoes are there to greet you as soon as you leave the water.
As you exit the woods however, that feeling you had when you got to the island, that feeling of paradise returns and you look across the first inland lake of the many you will see on this trip. Lake Whittlesey. Not as clear as the harbor you just left, but much more welcoming then the mosquito infested hell you just exited, you will hurriedly pack your things back into the canoes and head towards camp for the night. I know I did. Getting camp set up before you start fishing or doing anything else is a very important piece of work, and hereís why. On my first trip to Isle Royale, my father and I had just gotten in from fishing till almost sunset, and were just finishing up cooking the walleye and pike that we had caught. All of the sudden I heard what I thought was a plane from across the lake, coming right towards us. I asked my dad what it was and just as he said I donít know, a wall of mosquitoes began making their way over the lake and straight towards us. Yes folks, you heard right, a WALL of them. Iíve never seen so many mosquitoes in my life; needless to say we were done eating in 5 minutes and spent the next 30 in our tent killing every mosquito that managed to get in with us, just so we could get some rest.
The portage to Wood Lake is much more agreeable then the first. Itís still no picnic, but who said carrying 50-60 pound packs and canoes would be? From many of the people that Iíve spoke to, there are some monster pike in this lake. My first trip here we had a 30+ incher hooked, but it got caught on one of the rivets on the bottom of the canoe. Sadly, the time we spent here we didnít get as many big fish as I was hoping, the best one being around 28 inches. The week before we came there was a huge storm that rolled through and kind of through the fishing out of whackÖ Just my luck. I did catch enough to eat though, and the viewÖ well, few can match it. Letís just say worse things couldíve happened. The one truly bad thing that did happened though, I got some pretty spectacular sun burns. Remember kids, when your parents want to toss some SPF goodness on you, you should probably let them. I spent most of the week hiding from the sun, which is a hard thing to do when youíre in the middle of a lake in a kayak trying to catch dinner, believe me on that one.
If you get a chance, you should definitely take some time out of your day to go to Ryan Island, which is in the middle of Lake Siskiwit. If you do, youíll get the bragging rights, no the distinct honor, of saying that youíve been to the ďLargest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake in the world.Ē Trying saying that 10 times fast, I can barely get through one. I was a bit crabby however as this was my first trip with the kayak, and it takes a bit of getting used to when going from a canoe to it. There was about 2 foot waves going across to the island (yes it gets that windy on Lake Superior, who woulda thunk it?), and being as sun burned as I was, it didnít make for a good combination. Luckily my father is used to my little outbursts, and we pretty much pretended like it didnít happen.
We also got extremely lucky at our stay at Wood Lake, and saw one of the famous but rarely seen wolves of Isle Royale. I was talking to other lone father besides my dad who went with us whom I affectionately call ďThe Big G-Dog.Ē The man gets my humor, what can I say? We were standing atop a ridge and looking down into Siskiwit while he brushed his teeth, when all of the sudden his eyes got huge and he said ďLookĒ. On the other side of the channel, about 20 feet from the bank, I saw it. I caught it at the last second, just barely seeing the body as it scampered whisper quiet through the woods and back out of sight. It is something I will never forget.
Unfortunately we had to take our leave from Wood Lake after three days, so we packed up our gear and headed through Siskiwit and towards our next portage. On the east side of Siskiwit there is a small grouping of islands and some jutting points, and we used them to stay out of the wind. If you ever happen to get the chance to make it to the island and are in Siskiwit, take a moment to take in your surroundings all the way from the little channel connecting Wood Lake to the last island, it is a thing of beauty. The water is crystal clear all through Siskiwit (like Chippewa Harbor), and some of the islands have little coves in them, which make them very picturesque, if you will.
In order to get to Richie, we had to cross two portages and Intermediate Lake. Iíve been through it twice and never fished it either time. Supposedly some good pike fishing, but when an entire island is good fishing, thatís not really saying much. After those two uneventful portages and 1 mid sized lake later, we were at the Mecca of our first trip, Lake Richie. On the previous trip, my dad and I had caught almost 20 pike, each. Itís a great feeling when you can throw literally any lure on your pole and have it get slammed on, no matter what it is. The fishing this time around though, wasnít what it was the first time. In a slap across the face by the weather the week before, the fish were still kinda touchy and we didnít get as many as he had hoped. We still caught some, but hey, you canít catch 40 between two people in a day every time right?
I did however find the spot on the last day we spent on Richie, right as it was getting dark. In between one of the islands and the north shore, thereís a huge weed patch that goes the length of the island. I think I caught at least 7 pike of 20+ inches just in the last 2 hours I was out fishing. It was great but at the same time a little sad that I spent my entire day looking just to find it right before we left. Next time.
It was with heavy hearts that we packed up our tents and left to return to Rock Harbor. We reached the trailhead and prepared for the longest portage and the 8 mile row back to the harbor. The packs were lighter then they were at the start of the trip, but 10 pounds isnít as much as you think when youíre walking almost 2 Ĺ miles. With the sun blazing down on us, we trudged ahead, hoping to see that bay sooner then later. When we finally had all the gear back, Iím guessing we probably had hiked a total of 10 miles each, 5 miles with packs and 5 miles with no weight on our backs. By the time we hit the end of the portage, I was ready to make it back to Rock Harbor and take that shower Iíd been waiting a week for. Something about swimming every day just doesnít get the grime off you well enough, ya know?
Unfortunately for me, everyone wanted to sit down and take a break. I was having none of it, I told them Iíd meet them back in the harbor and be waiting on them with some ice cream and some freshly washed hair. Boy was that a mistake. You couldnít tell from the quiet little bay we were in, but once you got past that little protective point, you started hitting about 2-4 waves. This is not fun in a kayak that is not a sea kayak I can assure you, especially when you donít put the skirt on to keep the water out (those are for sissies right? Right?). I suppose I was doing relatively fine until the Ranger decided to come in harbor. As soon as that boat came in I knew I was in for some waves. For those of you who donít know, the Ranger is a boat that docks in Houghton that pretty much looks like a mini cruise liner from the outside. Nowhere near as big as a cruise liner of course, but when youíre in a 15 foot kayak, itís still pretty imposing.
Before I knew it I had waves coming at me and I was trying my best to not let them flip me over (I told you I wasnít great at that kayaking thing. Now give me a canoe, you will have no issues, kayak, not so much). One finally got me and put about 5 gallons of water into the kayak, but Iíll proudly state I didnít flip. Thought I was going to, but I didnít. I made it back to land and pretty much kissed the ground when I got there. I spent the next couple of hours chilling on the beach and eating ice cream. 10 miles of hiking and 10 miles of canoeing gives you a hankering for some nice cold ice cream, I can assure you of that. The rest of my party FINALLY made it in, and we got our stuff into the shelters just as it started to rain. Just my luck, it starts raining just when I get the chance to sit down on the last day.
The staff at Isle Royale is top notch however. The girls are young and cute, and after staring at a bunch of guys for a week thatís a welcome site, I can assure you of that. I also got to sit down and enjoy my victory beer with the Big G-Dog, and that in of itself is a reward, and cute girls on top of that? Come on now, itís always a good day with them.
We left the island with smiles on our faces, because we knew weíd just done something few people will ever have the chance to do in their lives. I watched as Isle Royale disappeared into the mist, and promised my lady that Iíd be back soon.
Wabakimi Canoe Pack
Canoe Pack Liner