Isle Royale, August 2011

Day 7

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I'm sure I was deep in stage 4 R.E.M. when I was spontaneously thrust into a foggy consciousness by some splashing in Washington Creek. Whatever was lurking out there was not far away. The momentary press of a button caused my watch to produce a pale turquoise light revealing that it was 1:30 a.m. From the gait and speed it was obvious that the animal was large in stature. It had to be a moose. I shook Mike and said, "Get up and come outside, now!" I sprang from my sleeping bag, headlamp in hand, and stepped out into the darkness, followed several seconds later by Mike. As we looked upstream toward the source of the splashing we saw a shaft of light erratically sweeping back and forth and up and down, most likely in an effort to locate the creature. The dim ambient light soon revealed the faint, but distinct, silhouette of a moose just to our east. I turned on my headlamp and shined the almost non-existent beam on the bulky object. It didn't seem to care about the voyeurs standing on the shore as it took its late-night stroll down the center of the creek. We watched and listened for just a minute or two until it was out of sight to our west. We went back to bed several minutes later, excited about our close encounter of the Alces alces kind. Sometime around 2:30 a.m. I was still awake when I heard what I believed to be the howl of a lone wolf somewhere out in the distance, however, it was so far away and so faint, that I couldn't be sure what it was. So, for now, I'll just believe it was a wolf.

We got up early. Early for us, at least, packed our remaining gear, ate a small breakfast and made another trip over to the ranger station. This time the walk was bittersweet because we were now carrying our backpacks -- it was the beginning of the end of our trip. On the way over we passed some people who told us that the Voyageur II was going to be arriving early today. It would be at Windigo by 11:15 a.m. I took advantage of the running water at Windigo and washed the dirt and sweat off my face and arms and then washed my hair in the sink, using the electric hand dryer to dry off. It felt good to be somewhat clean for the long trip home.

We spent our remaining free time in the ranger station looking at books and speaking with a ranger and some park volunteers. The ranger assured us that rumors of the Voyageur's early arrival were just that, a rumor. As the time of our departure grew closer we walked down to the pavilion for a final get-together with many of the hikers we had befriended here over the last two days. When Gary and Deb arrived we were eager to ask them if they had seen the moose wandering down Washington Creek just a few hours before. As it turned out, Gary was the one who was wielding the saber of light last night. He had heard the splashing in the creek and jumped up to investigate. He was surprised to see a bull and a cow moose in the river. I don't know where the bull went, but somewhere between shelter 14 and shelter 6 he had disappeared -- sucked into the complete and total darkness of our remote surroundings.

The Voyageur II arrived right on time and we had a smooth, uneventful trip back to the Hat Point Marina in Grand Portage. Our Isle Royale adventure was complete, but our trip had one more stop awaiting us.

When we spoke with Tom several days ago, he suggested that we visit Grand Portage State Park if we had time, especially after he learned that we had never been there. He said the park was right on the Minnesota / Canada border and featured an impressive waterfall that he assured us would be worth the short drive. From the Voyageur II parking lot, the state park is only 3.8 miles away, as the crow flies. But, since we aren't crows, we opted for the 7.8 mile drive instead. Within a few short minutes we arrived at the park which literally is a stone's throw from the Canadian border. The newly renovated (September 2010) park office and visitor center was clean and informative and had various brochures and displays.

Grand Portage State Park is located at the northeastern most corner of Minnesota and is on the southern edge of the Pigeon River, which in this area, serves as the border between the United States and Canada. Directly across the river is the Pigeon River Provincial Park. A paved trail departs from the back door of the visitor center and climbs gradually to the three observation decks overlooking the state's tallest waterfall, one-half mile away. At that point, the Pigeon River flows over the edge of the cliff and plummets to the jagged, rocky base 120 feet below where it instantly is transformed into a seething, frothy white mass. The thunderous impact of the crashing water seems to telepathically impart the statement, "Respect my awesome power!" It's quite a sight.

I couldn't help but wonder how these falls must have felt to the Ojibwe Indians who lived in this area, beginning in the early 1700's, if they were this impressive to me in the 21st century. The Indians who called this area home discovered that the Pigeon River was an efficient means of travel between the Great Lakes and the interior areas of Canada. The last 20+ miles of the river, however, were mostly impassable due to strong rapids and falls, so they essentially created a trail that allowed them to skirt the dangerous areas of the river. The Ojibwe Indians named the trail Kitchi Onigaming, which when translated, basically means The Grand Portage.

As we began the long ride home my mind played through a virtual slideshow of images, sights and sounds from the previous week and I thought back to the day when we calculated the number of steps we would take during our hike. In the beginning, 93,000 steps was simply the result of a trivial exercise intended to pass time and to classify our hike in something other than miles. In the end, it was more than just a quantitative measurement of how far we had traveled; it became a metaphor describing our entire journey.

So, what did 93,000 steps look like? A missed wolf sighting and the constant ribbing that followed, multiple Milky Way viewings, personal jokes that you "just had to be there" to understand, a cool breeze on our faces at the top of a tower on a hot afternoon, watching otters fish under a setting sun, sharing a remote wilderness dinner table with a complete stranger, the shared torture of the Island Mine Trail, trail-side physics lessons, achy feet, sore shoulders, bright, sun-filled days and nights so dark that we couldn't see our hands more than a foot away from our faces, hours of fishing without a single bite, waking up at night to see a moose 50 feet in front of us, the obnoxious sounds of sandhill cranes and the haunting calls of loons, great conversations with fellow hikers, learning countless new facts from knowledgeable park staff, sharing the joy of God's intricate and complex creation with my son and the countless memories that will forever be part of our lives.

This page last updated on 02-25-2016 @ 11:28 AM