Rock Harbor to Three Mile

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

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Where I stayed
Three Mile Campground

Flag of United States  , Michigan
Saturday, September 3, 2011

Day 1: Approximately 3 miles

I've been transported into a fairy tale. We hike through a canopy of green. Tree roots spread like long fingers across my path, waiting to trip me up. We’d read that the Rock Harbor trail had lots of rocks and roots, but, as we would discover, like many things we read about Isle Royale, the authors had understated the situation. In fact, the trail consists of rocks and rocks and more rocks, or roots and roots and more roots, or a mixture of the two with only the occasional patch of dirt where you can gratefully take a solid, non-ankle-twisting step.

"I thought this trail was supposed to be easy," Julie grunts, heaving herself onto a bare rock face overlooking Rock Harbor.

“I think it is rated moderate,” I tell her.

“If this is moderate, I don’t think I’ll survive the Minong.” She’s referring to the Minong Ridge, the hardest trail on the island, a 32-mile stretch of hills and rocks that we’ll be hiking on the last leg of the trip.

There’s a background susurration that makes me think we’re near a freeway. I can’t shake the idea even though I know it is only the wind in the aspens. The hum and grind of motors on the lake only add to the impression that I am hiking through a city park, not a remote wilderness.

A red squirrel chitters behind me. I turn and it’s in a tree, right at my eye level, just a couple of feet away. We stare at each other for a moment, then it runs down the tree into the brush. The red squirrels have been on the island so long that they are actually their own subspecies, but I can’t tell them apart from the ones who live near my house.

Because of the roots and the rocks, I spend most of the hike looking at my feet. This gets boring rather quickly. I start thinking about dinner. I can see my gear list in my imagination, where it says we need seven days of food. But I’m counting the number of nights we have ahead of us and we’ll be here eight nights, not seven. I count again, but come up with the same answer.

I screwed up and didn’t bring enough food.

I wonder when I should tell Julie.

My back is starting to hurt. I do some rough calculations as I traverse the treacherous trail and determine I’m carrying about thirty percent of my body weight. Julie is carrying twenty-five percent of hers. “How fair is that? “I think, but try not to let the thought get a hold on me. I chose to carry this much weight. I’m out to prove something.

I wish I knew what.

By the time we arrive at the Three Mile campground, I’m in some real pain and all I want to do is get this torture device off my back. It’s not just my back that hurts, my feet do, too. My calluses are inadequate to this task. Who knew that calluses could hurt?

I consider all the months of training I went through for this trek and realize that they were utterly inadequate. What I really needed to do was strap a mini-fridge to my back and hike up and down rocky hillsides for five hours a day. Barefoot.

Three Mile campground, being so close to Rock Harbor, will be full or close to full, I thought. I’d even worried we’d have to hike an additional four miles to Daisy Farm. Luckily, I am wrong. Not only is it not full, we snag a shelter right away. These are three-sided wooden structures, with a screened front. On the not-so-good side, we are located quite close to a pit toilet, and the odor of decaying human waste wafts through our site whenever the wind from the lake dies down. Still, it’s better than setting up a tent.

Julie’s first order of business today, and every day after, is to get her bedroll set up so she can lie down. I wait until she’s comfortable before breaking the news about the food. It goes better than I expect.

I stand over her prostrate form. “Hey, I screwed up.”

“Mmmm?” She doesn’t bother to open her eyes.

“Well, I should have packed eight days of dinner, but I only packed seven. I don’t know if we have enough lunch and breakfast, either.”


“I figured maybe we could skip a hot dinner on our rest day at McCargoe.”

“Mmmm. OK.” Then she starts to snore.

The shelter is in a little stand of trees, and has an obstructed view of Lake Superior. We can see the dock, where a couple of young women are stretched out in the late afternoon sun. A red squirrel gnaws a pine cone nearby. I wonder if it is eyeing my pack, which is sitting on the picnic table, while cleverly putting on a show for me, like a small, furry Euell Gibbons: “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” Its tiny brain is calculating angles, wind speed, how quickly a body of my mass can react if it makes a grab for the pack. Or perhaps it is merely a decoy. Right at this moment, another squirrel is chewing a hole in the bottom of my pack to get at the gorp stored there.

I take the pack into the shelter and wake Julie. “We’ve got to get water.” I tell her.

I’ve only used the filter once, filtering our tap water to make sure I understood how the thing worked. It’s not difficult. It’s a gravity filter. You have two bags connected by tubes with a filter in between. You fill the “Dirty” bag with the water you want to filter, and hold it up over the “Clean” bag. Gravity does the rest. I’ve never had to filter water before, and given that the water at Isle Royale, both from Lake Superior and inland lakes, may contain bacteria, parasites, giardia, or tapeworm eggs, it’s a necessary task. I just don’t know if I can trust the filter. What if it misses something and I get sick?

The water of Lake Superior is incredibly clear. First, we head out to the dock to get water a little bit out from shore, but the dock is so high that Julie and I can’t reach the water. Julie volunteers to wade in from shore, but there are soapy suds right there, and we decide to look for a cleaner spot. Another dock is listed on the map, so we go looking for that. I’m in my camp shoes, which have soft rubber soles and a blue nylon netted top. Hiking over the rocky, rooty trail in these flimsy contraptions only adds to the pain in my feet. Eventually we see the dock, and have to cut through two occupied shelter sites to reach it. I feel uncomfortable invading their privacy like this.

This dock is too high as well, so Julie just goes down the rocks to scoop water into the Dirty bag. But when she has trouble getting enough, she hands it to me since I’m apparently the expert. I learn an important lesson: Don’t wear socks if you are going to be wading in water (luckily, I have spares). I manage to fill the bag, and rather than cut through the occupied sites again, I squish up the hill (a non-durable surface, sorry Ranger Lucas) back to the trail.

Tired from a long day, we climb into “bed” before dark. The shelter has a lot of graffiti, but one stands out: “Death March ’08.” I hope that’s not what we are in for.
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