North Lake Desor to Washington Creek
Trip Start Sep 02, 2011
15Trip End Sep 11, 2011
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Where I stayed
Shelter 6, Washington Creek Campground
I think I might be lost.
Forcing my way through a veritable wall of alders and young maples, all I see is green. To my left, to my right, in front of me, behind me, over my head, nothing but green. The only evidence of a trail is at my feet, where beings of one sort or another have worn a path through the undergrowth. The question is whether those beings were human. Two days ago, I thought we were following a human path, too, and I was wrong then.
Ahead is a copse of mature trees, and I think I'm about to enter the familiar territory of woods bisected by an obvious trail, but the clearing is small and the path dives back into a fecund tangle of saplings and grasses
Before entering this stretch of "trail," I was in zombie-mode, which only exacerbates my fear that I missed an important turn-off. I rewind and play the memory of entering the thicket again and again, and I see no other path I could have taken. I wish I had the comfort of knowing that Julie is ahead of me, but the bright blue of her pack is nowhere in sight. I am alone.
I have choices. I can freak out and worry that I’m lost. I can turn back. Or I can trust that this is the real trail, and that everything is okay. Freaking out would use more energy than I can spare. Turning back reminds me of Mike, and he made a mistake by doing that. Since I don’t really have any evidence that I’m lost, and this is the Minong after all, where they warn you the trail can be difficult to follow, I decide to go with the trust thing. Though I don’t achieve perfect serenity, I do manage to keep the fears to a minimum. I am reassured when I see a water bar, which I take as proof that this is indeed the Minong trail and not a moose path or worse, a decoy trail leading to a lair of killer squirrels. Finding Julie waiting for me under a trio of cedars seals the deal. If Julie thinks we’re on the right track, we probably are.
We’re halfway through our trek for the day. Or maybe a third. Or three-quarters. There’s no way we can tell how far we’ve come. There are no mile markers, no landmarks. Yesterday we averaged about one mile per hour, so I estimate we’ll do the same today
With no way to gauge our progress, we push ourselves hard. Our first rest stop is after an hour and a half. Julie pulls a bag of trail mix out of her pack and offers it to me.
“Get that stuff away from me before I vomit,” I say, sullen as a teenager.
“Come on, you’ve got to eat. You need the energy.”
I know she’s right, but the idea of food makes me feel ill. “OK, one peanut.” I eat it successfully. It even tastes good, so I take a small handful of the gorp and it tastes good, too. But my stomach rebels at the second handful
Again, we hike an hour and a half before stopping. I’m pleased because the less often we stop, the more likely we’ll finish the hike before dark. But after this, our breaks get closer and closer together. Fifty minutes. Forty minutes. Thirty. Our strength is waning.
Though the books say yesterday’s stretch is the most challenging on the Minong, Julie and I think today’s is. The fact that we’re already tired from hiking every day for a week may have something to do with that, but as far as we can tell, this part of the trail has even more dramatic ups and downs than yesterday’s. The main difference is we don’t spend as much time being baked alive on the rocks.
Having already been pushed to my limit on this adventure, I can’t afford to be thinking about how much my feet hurt, why I don’t want to eat, or whether my dark urine means I’m going to die. It’s time to feed the Good Wolf. Problem is, I don’t know what it eats. I start by thinking of things that make me happy. I’m stumped at first, but then decide that reading qualifies. I love to read.
Within minutes, I’m crying, remembering one of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain. I’m not sad. I can’t explain to you why I have this reaction because I don’t understand it myself. All I know is it has to do with how much the characters love each other.
I let the tension drain out of me with the tears. It doesn’t make me happy, but it does make me feel better.
In the cup of a yellowing maple leaf, a tiny spider appears to hover. I am careful not to disturb it as I shrug out of my pack for lunch. We’re sitting on a peeling birch log, eating peanut butter on crackers. Suddenly Julie starts laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“Why did we come here?” she gasps. And then she laughs some more.
This is very unusual behavior for Julie. I’m the one who’s been asking that at least once a day, along with “whose idea was this, anyway?”
“She’s losing it,” I think. In our relationship, it’s my job to express the doubts and fears. She’s supposed to be confident and strong, the rock I am anchored to. At least, that is how I’ve been defining our roles. I’m not familiar with this other Julie.
“God, I just need to laugh,” she says, getting herself under control.
We walk. The landscape is more of the same
After hours under the trees, we find ourselves back on the rocky ridge, Lake Superior visible below. Perhaps this is a landmark, we think, and pull out the map. We’re hoping to see a spot where the trail edges more closely to the Lake, but no such luck. We still don’t know where we are, whether we have two hours of hiking left to do, or six.
The books we’d read mentioned two milestones on this stretch of trail: beaver dams that you have to cross. I’m kicking myself for not paying attention to where on the trail they are, but it seems to me the biggest one, which is apparently tricky to traverse, is toward the end of the hike. We are on the lookout for these rodent construction projects, and we cross a couple of spots that might be them, but both are completely unremarkable. For a change, the books overstated the difficulty of the situation.
To be fair, our experience on the Minong has been shaped by the weather. It hasn’t rained in weeks. The books promised that we’d get our feet wet crossing streams, but the streams have been replaced by mud, home to forlorn frogs whose lives are circumscribed by the occasional puddle. Maybe higher water would make the dams more challenging.
We’re on the bare rocks again. The sun is evil. “I hate this fucking ridge,” I say again. I’m on auto-pilot, not paying the kind of attention that the ridge requires. I’m reminded of a Laurie Anderson song: “You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you’re falling. And then catching yourself from falling.” That is exactly how I feel. Like I’m falling.
Thankfully, I don’t ever actually fall. A twisted ankle, or something even worse, would be a serious problem out here.
We’ve reached the top of an incredibly long hill and are resting on a rock, preparing ourselves to tackle another stretch under the blazing sun
And that’s when I remember my secret weapon, a little thing I bought at REI: PowerBar Energy gel, replete with electrolytes and caffeine. I’d put it in my pants pocket to eat when I reached bottom. Even though I feel like I’m going to die, I wonder if now is the time to use it. We could have miles and miles to go. Then I realize I’m not sure I can go even one more mile. It’s time. I rip open the packet and pour the green goo down my throat. It tastes nasty, but somehow I swallow it. Julie, watching me grimace, declines my offer of a hit.
Twenty minutes later, my head clears, and I am alive with energy. I’m sure it’s the caffeine. “This is the greatest drug ever,” I think, catching up to Julie.
After a few minutes of my dogging her heels, she says, “Do you want to get ahead of me?” I do, charging down the trail, my arms and legs chugging like pistons. Then I feel the delicate threads of a spider web across my chest, and look down to see the spider on my bare arm. I shriek and blow it into the undergrowth. I love spiders, as long as they aren’t touching me.
“You go first,” I tell Julie. “You’re wearing clothes.”
Julie’s energy is flagging, while I’m ready to run to Windigo. I try to boost her spirits. “You’re the one I look up to for strength,” I tell her. “You never give up. You played Wii Tennis over and over and over again until you beat the 2000 score. You can do this, too. I know you can.”
She just grunts. I’ve never seen her so exhausted. I feel vaguely guilty for my drug-induced energy.
Then she stops and I almost barrel into her. “Look!”
I peer around her, looking for I-don’t-know-what. Maybe we’re finally about to see a moose? But it’s actually something even better than that: a wooden post. We’ve reached the intersection between the Minong and the Huginnin trails. According to the marker, Windigo is just 1.8 miles away, which means our destination of Washington Creek is only 1.5 miles. I check my watch. We’re a full four hours ahead of schedule. “Guess what?” I tell her, “It’s only 3:50. We’ll get to Windigo before the store closes.”
As always, having the end in sight energizes Julie and she starts charging down the path. I tell her that at our current pace, we’ll probably get there in about forty minutes. “I can do anything for forty minutes,” she says, practically jogging. I’m having a hard time keeping up, caffeine or no.
It’s a long forty minutes, but we finally see the campground map ahead of us. Studying the map, it starts to sink in. We did it! We hiked all the way across Isle Royale.
We survived Death March '11.
But we aren’t done for the day. There are about ten shelters at Washington Creek, and I’m thinking many, if not all of them, will be taken by day-trippers and other hikers leaving with us on tomorrow’s ferry. We start at shelter 15. Taken. 14 is empty, but it is filled with buzzing flies. Julie says no. 13 is taken. 12 is taken. 11 is taken. As we go down the line, I’m thinking with disappointment that we’re going to have to set up the tent. Then we reach shelter six. It has a great view of the creek, and no one has claimed it. It, too, is full of flies, but given that this might be the last available shelter, Julie overlooks that small detail and we claim it as our own.
I don’t even have time to create my signature pack sprawl. We’ve only got half an hour to get to the store before it closes. We take what we need for a shower and hike the .3 miles up to Windigo.
The woman at the store is used to seeing starving, deranged hikers excitedly eyeing the store’s goodies. She’s unimpressed with our accomplishment. Unlike the rangers, she’s not interested in our stories. All she wants to do is sell off her stock: the store closes for the season tomorrow, and the less inventory she has to count, the better!
They don’t have Diet Dew, so Julie gets a Coke. I do too. I figure I deserve a little more sugar and caffeine after everything I’ve been through. It tastes delicious.
Each shower token is good for 5 minutes. We each get two, figuring that we’ll want to revel in the water. I’m surprised they are $6 each, but I gladly pay it. We only have one bottle of soap, so I wait for Julie on a peeling green bench outside the shower area. One of the young Greenstoners comes out of a shower stall, drying his hair. He sits down next to me. “Did you have fun?” he asks.
“For about 20 minutes,” I reply. Fun is not what I would call this adventure. Character-building, perhaps, but definitely not fun.
When Julie finally gets out of the shower, I go in. There are no handles for controlling the water flow. As soon as I slide my token into the machine, the hot water starts shooting out of the showerhead located high up on the wall. It feels awesome after eight days of wearing the same stinky clothes. I scrub every part of myself clean. I’m thinking five minutes has come and gone, but the water keeps coming. I wash my underwear, but the water keeps coming. I wash my privates again, but the water keeps coming. This is the longest five minutes I’ve ever encountered! As guilty as I feel about wasting water, I decide I’m done and need to dry off now, and that’s when the water finally stops. It must be a psychic spigot.
Back at the shelter, I’m sweeping out a pile of dead flies when Ranger Lucas stops by to invite us to a talk he is giving about the various research projects on the island. He asks about our hike. When we tell him we’d done the Minong, he says, “You should be proud of yourselves. That’s a tough hike. We call it the ‘meat grinder.’” He says that if you look at a relief map of the area, you’ll see how the glaciers cut across the ridge, carving out the valleys. “It looks like a cheese grater. Some people start from here and turn around and come back.”
We tell Lucas we won’t be able to attend his talk because we haven’t eaten yet, but that he is welcome to come on down afterwards and give it to us personally. After he leaves, we settle in to that dinner: Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese. We’d left it for last on the assumption it would be a rich and tasty way to get a boatload of calories into our system. We are sorely disappointed. The meal is soupy and barely has any taste. Most of the other Mountain House meals we’d eaten had been okay, though not so good that I’d want to eat them for dinner at home.
Before we started the Minong, we’d had at least one conversation a day about returning to the island. Now, I don’t want to come back, ever. In fact, I never want to backpack again. I ask Julie what she thinks.
“We did the hardest trail on the island,” she muses as she eats, “so anything else will be a walk in the park. But I wouldn’t do the Minong again. I’m not a glutton for punishment.”
Julie climbs into her sleeping bag, but I hang back. I am not looking forward to another night with insufficient padding between me and a hard floor. “Let’s walk over to Rock Harbor and get a room,” I suggest.
“You go ahead,” Julie says, rolling over and shaking the shelter.
As exhaustion gradually wins the battle with my caffeine buzz, I realize that my back didn’t hurt all day. There had been twinges and achiness, but never the agony I had been so absolutely certain would occur. My fears were unfounded.
That’s a lesson worth learning.