Greenstone Ridge trail; Rock Harbor to Windigo
It's a new year and I've had six months since my first trip to the island. I think it's true that time heals and lends perspective. Had I posted my report right after my trip my perspective would have been different. It was the worst and best experience I've ever had on trail. With time the island has grown on me. So to those of you who posted reply to my Itinerary Advice for July 2017 posts and those who left your advise across the forum, I thank you. My first solo backpacking trip was enriched by all of you and I was well prepared...
My basic planned itinerary:
July 12 - Grand Portage to Rock Harbor; Camp at Daisy Farm
July 13 - Daisy Farm to West Chicken Bone Lake on the Greenstone
July 14 - West Chickenbone to Hatchet Lake
July 15 - Hatchet Lake to South Dessor Lake
July 16 - South Dessor Lake to Island Mine
July 17 - Island Mine to Washington Creek or Huginnin
July 18 - Day hiking around Windigo
July 19 - Windigo to Grand Portage
My actual itinerary:
July 12 - Grand Portage to Rock Harbor; Camp at Rock Harbor
July 13 - Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm
July 14 - Daisy Farm to West Chickenbone Lake
July 15 - West Chickenbone Lake to South Dessor Lake
July 16 - South Dessor Lake to Washington Creek
July 17 - Washington Creek
July 18 - Windigo to Grand Portage
I left Minneapolis July 11 with the goal of getting to the Grand Portage Casino campground after dinner. On the way I realized that my trusty watch had a dead battery so I stopped in Duluth for a replacement and was only delayed an hour. Then it was a push on to Grand Marais for dinner at the Gunflint Tavern. A beer and gigantic plate of ziti later, I headed for Grand Portage.
Based on the many posts that noted the ferry dock being in a spot that is a bit difficult to find, I headed there first. The parking lot and ferry office were as described. Ample parking, utilitarian building. Once I was clear on getting to the ferry, I checked in at the campground and determined that with the early departure of the ferry, I would sleep in the car. The night temperature was stark contrast to the nearly 90 degree and 80% humidity I'd left. But it was raining and the thought of having a wet tent in my car for a week did not see like a good idea since my plan was to hammock.
Camping fees included showers and access to the pool at the casino hotel.
The campground a coin operated washer and dryer.
I arrived early at the ferry dock and was soon joined by several others who would end up playing key roles in my adventures. Three young men from Illinois had driven overnight and another from Michigan. We chatted and waited for the ferry crew and fellow passengers to arrive. It was still raining and chilly. I'd checked the weather only to see a small craft advisory (6-8 ft swells) for Lake Superior. With the stories I'd heard about weather, I was fully expecting we wouldn't be leaving. But the captain had 40 people and felt he could make the trip, warning everyone it would be a "bumpy" ride.
On the Voyager gear is loaded on the top of the ferry and then a tarp is strapped over. I'd forgotten the advice to put a rain cover on when loading and later would understand the advice. Canoes and kayaks are also loaded. I'd worried about my pack being over the 40# limit, which I'm pretty sure it was, but they were not weighing packs so I think it's more of an honor system.
Loading goes pretty quick. Once gear is on, they check each person on and you grab seats wherever you want. The ferry itself is basic. There is space on the front of the boat to be on deck, but the temperature and waves kept everyone inside with the exception of those who were sea sick. Those folks get to hang off the back. And there were quite a few, including one of the Illinois boys.
Advice: If you even think you are likely to get sick, be sure to sit toward the back of the boat. Bring rain gear, hats and glove into the boat if it's looking like rain. Have water and snacks on hand too. The ride is about 2.5 hours in good weather, closer to 3 in rough weather.
When we got to Windigo, everyone gets off and gets orientation from the rangers. If you are continuing on, but being dropped off before Rock Harbor, you have to get your permit from the ranger station, which is a little way from the dock. The ferry stops for about 20 minutes tops.
About 12 of us stayed on board. There were two drops at sites along the north shore before the captain attempted the northern point. He decided it was too rough so we headed back to the ranger station at Amygaloid Island. It ended up being a two hour stop. By that time, we'd determined that the young man who'd been hanging off the back of the boat the whole way over was hypothermic (no food and sleep, energy drinks, jeans and a sweatshirt). We treated him and when the captain got word things were calming, he went for Rock Harbor.
We ended up arriving at the dock about 6:30 PM. The ranger staff was great. They made sure we were all checked in and permitted, the restaurant was opened for anyone wanting food. I grabbed my permit and headed for the campground to see if I could grab a spot in a shelter since it was getting dark and was still raining pretty hard. I got lucky and the family at the first shelter made room. That's when I discovered that anything that wasn't in dry bags in my pack was wet.
Hammocking: Since it was nearly dark and raining, I didn't have time to check out the campsites to see what the hang conditions are like, but it looks like most of the campground has trees that would work for hanging. I'd be sure to be within the impacted areas of a site because that was clearly communicated by the rangers and this site is within easy inspection.
The morning was rain and I'd lost 8 miles of hiking with the delay on the ferry. I headed out as early as I could for Daisy Farm. I took the Tobin Harbor trail to Mt. Franklin trail. From Mt. Franklin the trail hooks up with the Rock Harbor trail where the rocks on the shore are slick when they are wet. Really slick. And when it's wet where there aren't rocks, it can be really muddy. I was really slow, with the trail taking me nearly 4.5 hours from campground to campground. The campground was packed. I again managed to grab a spot with another family (advantage of solo going) and tried to dry out/warm up. Daisy Farm was even muddier than I could have imagined a campground to ever be. Being open to sharing space with strangers made it all the better. And so nice to share the sun breaking through at sunset with hope that things might dry out a bit the next day.
Advice: My fellow shelter inhabitants had assumed that because no bears they could leave food out if they were in the shelter. Isle Royale has what I lovingly refer to as "mini bears" (aka mice) so plan for it. I hated the weight of that bear vault I carried, but I never worried about my food disappearing.
Hammocking: Again, because of the rain, I opted for shelter sleeping. Daisy Farm looks to have spots for hammock hangs, but again, it's a pretty busy campground so using impacted areas would be important.
Took the Daisy Farm trail to it's junction with the Greenstone Ridge Trail. It took me nearly 6 hours to get to the junction with the trail to my goal of East Chickenbone Lake. The trial to the campground was still really muddy so it took me almost an hour to get to the campground. Since most hikers seemed to prefer West Chickenbone for it's proximity to Daisy Farm, I'd purposely decided to add the extra mile to the hike. Totally worth it. I was able to have my choice of sites and grabbed Group Site #6. It's plenty big for a group of 8. Great view and direct access to the lake. Plenty of trees for hanging within the impacted site. The lake was filled with loons (I've never seen so many in one lake). I had a friendly rabbit and a sneaky chipmunk who I was able to keep out of my food.
I also had time to reflect on the excitement of seeing wolf and moose tracks, my clothes and gear beginning to dry out, the people I'd met and the time of solitude. I'd been thinking pretty hard about the day of hiking I'd lost, which meant I'd lost my buffer day at Windigo.
Hammocking: I checked out a couple sites and all looked like there were good hangs within the impacted areas. I'd say site #6 was by far my favorite with a spot that I could set up with a beautiful view of the sunrise on the lake.
Back on the Greenstone heading south. In looking at my trial journal the day is pretty well summed up by the first entry at the end of the day "a series of good decisions followed on one less stellar one". Compared to the previous two days, the sun shine and views from Mount Siskwit were spectacular.
Good decisions: I had a great chat with another solo female hiker who had been on the Minong trail (knee high mud was her report). Made me much happier at my choice of trail. I also ran into the guy from Michigan who had started at Windigo and got a report on all the campsites he'd seen (our itineraries were nearly the same, just opposite directions). All were muddy or muddy to get to them. In your boots mud.
Good decision + spectacular bad decision: He and I chatted about my concern about being a day behind. His encouragement to bypass Hatchet Lake was enough to seal it for me. I'd lunch at Hatchet Lake and press on to South Dessor.
With the rain, the bugs had exploded so having treated my clothes in permethrin and a tube of heavy duty 3M bug goo was key. Unfortunately by the time I reached Ishpiming Point, I'd lost my tube of bug goo. Lesson learned to always take the time to put your gear back in it's proper place. I'd shoved the tube in my pocket, which is not it's proper place. I'd backed up with a head net and was grateful for it, even though it was now hot.
I got to South Dessor early evening and was greeted by a forest of birch trees. I'd hear this was the site that would challenge my hopes to hang at all the campsites. I just had no idea how much. Every single individual site is birch trees. We'd been warned about not hanging not once, but twice. The summer of 2016 there had been a pair of youth who'd been airlifted off the island when a birch broke off and landed on their hammock (See related posts). Since it was late, I took the chance that I'd find a spot at one of the group sites and managed to do that. Two very small aspens, just barely in the impacted site.
I also discovered when I'd set camp that I'd been less vigilant in my foot care and would end up loosing two nails (results of bad decision). Nuf said. The sites themselves are beautiful. Individual sites are up a steep drop off to the water. Group sites are set back from the shore with each having water access.
Hammocking: This is a campground that you have to be prepared to go to ground. I pushed the limits of impacted area to hang mine and the trees were too small for anyone larger than about 5' tall and 130 lbs.
With my feet banged and a really good night sleep under my belt, I got a late start. My plan, based on my conversation the previous day about the conditions at Island Mine (its in a swampy area in good weather), was to head for Windigo. I gave myself the goal of getting to the Island Mine cutoff and decided if I would press on.
Early in the day I ran into a youth group that had been on the ferry over and was heading north on a 12 day trip. I hadn't eaten nearly as much food as I'd packed and was eager to offer it up to them. I happened to mention that I'd lost my tube of bug goo. The leaders checked their supplies and offered up a partial bottle of spray which I willingly took. We also talked about who from the ferry ride we'd seen and who we hadn't, how it's great to help each other out on trial and what they might see when they got to Rock Harbor.
This section of the trail is much more rolling hill compared to the north end of the island. I saw it described several times as "all downhill". It's not quite that, but the forest opens up. There are several swampy areas with board walks and I had the joy of getting over a tree that stood above my waist across one of the boardwalks. At the Island Mine cutoff I checked my feet, re-bandaged and had lunch. I'd decided that I'd rather press on and get into Windgo near sunset than spend a night in a buggy, muddy site.
I rolled into the Washington Creek campsite about an hour before dark and found an empty shelter where I pretty much collapsed. I'd not only made up the day I'd lost, but I was a day ahead of plan. I ate, hung the last of my wet clothes and crashed for the night.
Hammocking: While I stayed in a shelter, there are plenty of individual and group sites that are hangable. The big thing to be aware of is that this is the area that the moose seem to favor on the island so you could wake up to one in your site.
My first close up sighting of a moose was at 6:30 AM. A bull moose was walking in the creek right in front of the shelters on his morning stroll. I was a bit to bleary-eyed to make sense of what was going on until he walked past. Then later, on my way to get water, I turned at the camp intersection to see a cow moose. I turned right around as we'd been warned all the cows had given birth in a one week period in May. I kept an eye out on my way to the ranger station to check-in, but didn't see any on the trail.
Once I'd checked in, visited the store to check things out and gone down to the ferry dock in the hope of catching the ferry on it's way toward Rock Harbor to see if I could catch a ride the next day back to Grand Portage. The captain checked and told me to be ready in the morning as they could accommodate my early departure. I headed back and spent the rest of the day enjoying the shelter and rest. Late in the afternoon, a range came through to let everyone know they were conducting a program that evening. I opted for my continued solitude for the evening.
This morning I was more prepared when I heard the moose, grabbing a few shots before he moved on. I packed up and headed down to the dock with my gear. After another visit to the store, I waited with the rest of the folks leaving. Its always interesting to me the variety of people who visit such remote places and why. The ranger came down to do a talk before the ferry arrived which was an unexpected surprise. I'd considered a shower, but opted to not pay the $6 for five minutes. I had changed my plan to pay for a night of camping at Grand Portage for the use of the shower at the campground instead.
The ferry ride was great as many of the people I'd met on the way over were returning. We shared our experiences with the rain, mud and various changes in itineraries. The water was calm too, which was a welcome change. The captain took us over the wreck of the America on our way out. Truly a eerie experience!
Overall thoughts on Hammocking vs Tenting:
I was really glad I'd chosen to hammock. While it didn't save me weight, it did save space in my pack. I think many of the sites on the Greenstone are conducive to hangs, with the exception of South Dessor Lake. I'd be curious about the sites I skipped and many of the shoreline sites. Hopefully with time, more people will report with greater details. Just be prepared in case you do have to go to ground. That's also doable at all the sites I explored.
- Be flexible.
- Be prepared for your itinerary to change and be sure to have a buffer day (or two) on your departure.
- A waterproof map is really helpful.
- Going light is the way to go if possible. I'd packed way too much food and it slowed me down.
- Be prepared to get wet. I can understand why I saw many hikers with trail running shoes vs. hiking boots.
- Be prepared for bugs. Lots of them, especially after rain.
- Look forward to meeting really awesome people. The island brings a special type of people who are more kind and generous that I'd imagined.
- Share your experience so others can learn from it. I was way better prepared by talking with people who'd been to the island and scouring the forum.
- Go for it. Enjoy it!
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Thanks for the trip report. I've loved meeting new people on the island.
We've usually taken a middle ground on food storage -- double bag everything and keep it in our packs. Safer than leaving it out (wha??) and lighter than a bear cannister.
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While I personally think the weight of a bear canister is overkill, I can see how it would bring a convenient ease of mind against the small but troublesome critters. As dcclark notes, proper bagging and storage should be sufficient but I would add, don't place the bag next to the wall of your pack. I've had a squirrel chew through the pack nylon, then the stuff bag nylon, then the zip lock bag in order to enjoy the peanuts. It wasn't in a shelter but left unattended on a picnic table for only just a few minutes.
I wholeheartedly agree with the "be flexible" comment and would add to be prepared for all the possibilities.
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For food storage, there's a compromise that's almost irresistibly well-named. Ursack is a line of soft-sided (reputedly) bear-resistant food storage bags. (I've never used one -- they're not on the list of approved bear canisters in jurisdictions where I hike.) They also offer a toned-down version meant to protect food against lesser critters. It's called ... the Ursack Minor.
I've used it on IR and not been victimized by rodent thievery. (I've also just hung an even less-armored food bag in a tree and not been victimized.)
https://www.rei.com/product/109161/ursa ... gKRV_D_BwE
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