Monday, August 27, 2012

Letter from Isle Royale

Red Road Spirit, Pamela Yates

The late July morning had grown warm when I hiked out of the forest and climbed onto the crest of Isle Royale National Park's Minong Ridge. I paused, adjusted my pack, and took in the view. Rain from the night before had stained the basalt under my boots a dark gray. The ridgeline was bare except for tufts of grass, splotches of lichen, and a handful of gnarled cedars charred from a forest fire three months before. Lake Superior sparkled below, where her frigid waters stretched northwest to Canada. Ontario was a green ribbon on the horizon.

Ojibwe sacred stories tell of terrible battles between Thunderbirds and Mishupeshu, the Underwater Lynx, that happened where I stood. Those deities fought with lightning and wind and water, and now I saw why tribal elders still spoke of this place with both reverence and awe. A thunderhead, dark and several miles across, was steaming toward me from Canada. Rain fell in sheets beneath it, obscuring the lake. 

I gave the storm twenty minutes before it rolled over me.

Two days earlier I'd been aboard the Voyageur II, a ferryboat out of Grand Portage, Minnesota, that circumnavigates the Isle Royale archipelago. I sat atop the starboard engine compartment as the boat nosed around the island from Washington Harbor to McCargoe Cove, and mentally ran through my clothing and gear. I wore a blue t-shirt and gray trousers made of a quick-dry synthetic fabric. A laminated map of the island was tucked in a backpack pocket, along with a compass. Other items packed included my tent, a water filter, an MSR stove with fuel bottle, an ultralight mess kit, rain suit, and trekking poles. Zipped into a watertight pouch was my late Grandpa McIlree's silver Army medal from 1915, because I'd asked him to join me on the hike.

Voyageur II, R. Pahre, Flickr

This trip represented my first solo, long-distance hike in the backcountry. The Minong Ridge Trail has a reputation for toughness, so few people choose it. I'd picked it for the solitude and isolation. The trail runs thirty-one miles along barren ridges interspersed with beaver ponds and forest that one must repeatedly traverse. Park rangers do little to maintain the path, so backpackers follow a succession of cairns -- small piles of stones -- for direction along the way. I'd be on my own from the moment the deckhand tossed my pack onto the McCargoe dock to the moment, three long days later, when I walked into Windigo Ranger Station.

Now, as the storm enveloped the green hills ahead of me in blue and the wind grew stronger, I felt less keen about solitude and isolation. Thunder cracked, echoing off the Greenstone Ridge to the east. Then I slipped on a patch of scree, fell forward with the weight of my pack, and sprawled onto the pocked bedrock.

My thoughts grew in a crescendo of fear as I stood up.  

What are you doing alone on a bare outcrop, miles from anyone, with fifty pounds strapped to your back? What about lightning? Or losing the trail in the rain? And you haven't seen a soul all day. Who's going to help you out of here if you break a leg?

Storm Coming, RwFrenchJr, Flickr

"Grandpa," I said as the dark clouds rolled toward me. "Grandpa, I am so scared."

I stopped and took a long, deep pull from my water bottle. I closed my eyes, saw the lean frame of a man I'd never met, saw the smile of a man who'd died eight years before I was born, and felt his hand on my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, I knew he was present. Grandpa was here, on the Minong, watching out for me. Calmness settled within my chest. Just keep on walking.

A spatter of rain, another crack of thunder across the ridge. And then the storm began to pivot, blowing eastward. Blowing away from me. I kept on walking.

Later that evening I camped, surrounded by birch trees, on the shore of an inland lake. The acres of dripping leaves held an atmosphere of deep monastic silence. I sat on the shoreline as a loon dove, surfaced, and then called to her mate. For the first time in a long while, I felt at peace. Eighteen miles of hard trail were behind me. So far, I had handled the solitude and wildness. Thirteen more miles waited in the morning.  A thought rose in the stillness: do I love me?

Desor Lake Birch, Fred Sproat, Flickr

An image of four old men in pressed black robes followed that thought. Back home, these judges review my daily life with eyes of polished stone. They never smile. "You accomplished nothing today," one will proclaim. "You're not good enough." The other three always nod as the gavel swings down. "Guilty!"

But those old judges had not come with me to Isle Royale. The thought returned: do I love me?

The moon rose, almost full, against a sky of burnished copper. The loon paddled away. Soon this journey would be accomplished. Within a day the trip would be over. I took a deep breath, exhaled through my nose. What knowledge would I carry from this place? I stood, stretched, and gazed at the lake. Then I smiled. 

Do I love me?


With special thanks to

Pamela Yates Watson
Rich Watson
John Bostwick
Taylor Slapinski
Joe & Carol McIlree