Pure and peaceful

Backpacking on Isle Royale challenging, yet rewarding

ALMOST HIDDEN BEHIND BRANCHES, a female moose stands in a stream on the way to the Three Mile campground in Isle Royale National Park. This was the third moose seen by Ta’Leah Van Sistine’s group during their trip to the remote Lake Superior island. (Ta’Leah Van Sistine photo)

ISLE ROYALE — Our campsite was less than two miles away when I heard my dad loudly whisper, “Ta’Leah.”

It was the second day of our adventure at Isle Royale National Park, and this wasn’t the first time he’d gotten my attention. 

Most times as we backpacked, I was at the front of our group of three, followed by my dad, Bob Van Sistine, and my best friend Samantha Zerbel. So my dad would call my name sometimes to point out signs of life I may have missed while looking down instead of around me.

When my dad called my name this time, though, I admittedly was daydreaming about taking off my 22-pound load.

I was about halfway across one of Isle Royale’s famous footbridges, which are typically the width of one or two planks of wood, when I heard my dad’s voice, so I turned around and hiked back up the hill where he was standing.

TA’LEAH VAN SISTINE on the Ojibway Tower, which is the tallest point on the eastern end of Isle Royale. She recently spent several days hiking in the national park with her dad, Bob Van Sistine, and best friend Samantha Zerbel. (Bob Van Sistine photo)

“There’s a moose down there,” he said excitedly. “Hear the water splashing?”

We were silent for a moment, allowing us to hear the gentle sloshing of something moving around in the pond below. All three of us quietly dropped our backpacks and walked off the trail down to the water’s edge. 

She was hard to visualize at first because we could only see a small glimpse of her brown body, but when she stepped forward, her enormous nature became more fathomable.

When the moose made eye contact with us, it was simply mesmerizing. Seeing a moose outside of an exhibit and far from a highway was different, more special somehow. 

While we were far away from the female moose, when her ears perked up and she stopped drinking, we moved back up the trail because we wanted to give her as much space as possible.

FOOTBRIDGES LIKE THIS one, often one to two planks wide, are commonly used on the trails in Isle Royale National Park. Three of the four moose Ta’Leah Van Sistine saw on her trip were in ponds near footbridges. (Bob Van Sistine photo)

Our encounter was brief, but I walked away grinning. Though backpacking on Isle Royale was difficult, it was worth it. I would realize this time and time again. 

Day one: Wake-up call

We drove from Houghton to Copper Harbor on June 25. Once we parked, we saw the ferry that would take us to the island in about 3 1/2 hours — the Isle Royale Queen IV.

It was a cold morning, with lots of flies there to greet us. The most important observation I made, however, was that Lake Superior looked calm, meaning our journey would be a smooth one. 

I was nervous, but mostly excited that in a matter of hours, we’d be immersed in wilderness. 

A SUNRISE ON Isle Royale National Park. (Ta'Leah Van Sistine photo)

When the island finally came into sight, I couldn’t contain myself. The captain warned it would be cold to stand on the decks of the boat, but I went out anyway. I couldn’t wait to explore the wide expanse of green I saw in the distance. 

As soon as the ferry docked, all of us backpackers were pulled into a short orientation led by an Isle Royale park ranger.

While I waited for her to begin, I immediately noticed the clearest fresh water I’d ever seen. I could see straight to the bottom and with the sun shining on the water, it acquired a unique turquoise hue. 

“Isle Royale is so wild,” the park ranger said several times during her presentation, and in response, we’d have to shout back as loud as we could, “How wild is it?” 

“Isle Royale is so wild that its wilderness calls people back again and again, making it the most revisited national park,” the park ranger said.

Before starting our 7.1-mile hike to the Daisy Farm campground that day, I wondered if that would be me — if I would be so fascinated with the park that I’d want to go back. 

During our hike, I could tell that Isle Royale’s appeal was as clear as Lake Superior.

At one point in our journey, a series of rocks stacked on top of each other led us to a small overlook with a pretty view of a lone red spruce that towered above all the other trees.

In our final hour of hiking, Lake Superior turned into forest and the intense smell of pine greeted us.

We sent my dad ahead to grab us a shelter, and once Samantha and I arrived, we feasted on much-needed food and water. 

That night, laying on my sleeping pad and feeling every sore muscle ache, a part of me wondered if the hike we planned to do the next day was a good idea. It was another 6.9 miles, mostly uphill.

But as I fell asleep to the sound of loons, I knew this trip was going to be something I’d never forget — and Lane Cove reportedly was a good place to see moose. I was hopeful that we’d be just fine. 

Day two: The top

When we woke up, I felt refreshed, grateful to be in the woods and optimistic about our upcoming hike to Lane Cove.

The day before, our water purification process consisted of filtering the water and then using water purification tablets. But on our second day, Samantha and I opted for just using the tablets as we filled up our bottles.

I had two mostly full water bottles when we departed for Lane Cove, and it only took us 90 minutes to get to the Ojibway tower — the highest point on the eastern end of the island.

After shedding our backpacks, we climbed as high as we could up the tower and basked in the sight of trees and inland lakes below us.

We then continued on part of the Greenstone Ridge Trail, so we were also able to stop at Mount Franklin, where the Canadian shoreline is more visible. At that point, we had less than 3 miles left.

It was along this stretch that we encountered our first moose, a female. Right after that, we saw a young bull almost 800 feet away.

Narrow footbridges were common during our final 2 miles to Lane Cove. They often creaked under the weight of our heavy gear. One bridge was broken, forcing us to carefully balance on a floating tree before stepping onto what remained intact. 

We were lucky to have snagged the last campsite at Lane Cove, and I immediately started purifying water, since my dad and I didn’t have any left.

Afterwards, even though it was extremely cold, my dad and I quickly swam in Lake Superior.

A man who passed me as I walked back to our campsite asked, “Did you just go swimming? In that?”

“Yes I did,” I said proudly

Nighttime quickly came on us, and as I sat eating warm beef stroganoff — heated up with a mini-pan and propane tank — Samantha and I joked about how we’d felt earlier that day. 

There were challenging parts of the hike where steep hills called for careful footing and there were moments when the whining sound of mosquitoes made it hard to focus.

“There was a point when I thought to myself that I’d rather be working (than hiking),” Samantha and I both said, to which we laughed. 

All kidding aside, though, we knew that there was nothing else like this.

Day three: ‘Happy trails’

I woke up to the sound of rain on the tent and knew that we needed to be extremely careful hiking to the Mount Franklin Junction. The steep edges and hills would be slippery after the rain.

Thankfully the night before, my dad had the idea to cover our packs with garbage bags, so nothing got wet. 

The rain continued as we embarked on our 2.4-mile trek up to the Mount Franklin Junction. I found myself depending more than I had before on my hiking poles to travel across slippery rocks and wet trees. 

After a brief lunch at the junction, we started our 2.2-mile hike down to the Three Mile campground. I was crossing a footbridge when Samantha called me back to see our third moose as she drank water in a stream. This moose was only 70 feet away. 

Just after that encounter, we saw our fourth and final moose as she slowly trudged through the forest, softly crunching brush as she traveled among the trees. 

We got a shelter when we arrived at Three Mile, which allowed us to hide away from the rain. An hour later, the rain had stopped, the sun was out and the gloomy day transformed into gorgeous. 

That night, we fell asleep again to the beautiful call of the loon, and I couldn’t believe that our trip was nearly over. 

Day four: The good place

Our last morning was our earliest. We woke at 6 a.m. to start packing our things, but when I glanced outside, I knew I wanted to watch the sunrise. 

I spent 10 minutes on the large flat rocks near our shelter, watching the spectrum of colors the sky was arranging: one side pinks and oranges, the other blues and purples. It looked like a sunrise and a sunset were happening at the same time. 

Even with Lake Superior — the largest Great Lake — right beneath my feet, everything was still. I could have stayed standing there, but I knew the end of our journey was waiting for us.

The excitement of returning to running water, plumbing and a restaurant was our source of motivation that day, but it was hard to ignore the light as it shined through the trees and the expanse of clear blue water right next to us. 

We took one break on a stretch of large flat rocks and began to feel the sun’s immense heat. It was nice, though, with our backpacks off, to look out at the terrain that had become familiar to us. 

I had been looking at a series of large spider webs in the plants right next to the trail when I noticed the glint of a silver sign up ahead of me — the Rock Harbor campground sign. 

It had only taken us two hours to arrive outside the Rock Harbor Visitor Center, and with our backpacks off for good, Samantha and I settled into a bench on the main dock, watching a merganser and her babies frantically swim by. 

After a meal at Rock Harbor’s restaurant, the Greenstone Grill, we traveled back to the dock where the Isle Royale Queen IV would bring us home. There, we spoke with one family who had been at most of the same campsites as us.

They said they had been on many backpacking trips as a family, so I asked one of them, “Does backpacking ever get any easier?”

“No,” she said, laughing. But this was their second time at Isle Royale. There was something about this place that made backpacking worth it.

I was desperately craving fast food and a soft bed on our trip back to Copper Harbor, but a part of me still felt sad as Isle Royale disappeared from view. 

I couldn’t shake that feeling, even after we got fast food on the road and even after I found myself about to sleep in a soft, comfortable bed.

On the first day of our trip, the park ranger explained that Ojibway people in the past had named the island Minong, which means “the good place.” 

“The good place,” I’ve thought to myself in the weeks since we arrived back home, is the perfect way to describe something as pure and peaceful as Isle Royale.

I had never been more immersed in wilderness, more distant from routine, more dependent on the natural area around me.

A place that takes care of you, that offers tranquility, that stays intact — a place like that is nothing but good. 


Ta’Leah Van Sistine is a creative writing and journalism major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who is spending the summer in Iron Mountain and has been writing articles for The Daily News.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today