Isle Royale National Park can only be reached by boat or seaplane. This journey makes the destination more magical. For Tom and me, it first meant a long drive from Mankato, but it allowed us to stretch our legs with some trail miles on the Superior Hiking Trail. Since we are both used to running the Superior races, I wanted to show Tom the trail north out of Lutsen for some variety. We ran along the Poplar River but we didn’t make it as far as Lake Agnes, one of my favorite SHT spots. After the run we met up with Jason and Amy Husveth and their french bulldog Luna.
The next day (early May) we took the Voyageur II’s second crossing of the season from Grand Portage, Minnesota. It’s a three-hour boat ride to Windigo, the ranger station on the west end of the island. These early crossings are festive, with research scientists and volunteers, park staff and rangers and return visitors. It’s a reunion of sorts. Someone brought a cake with the Voyageur II drawn in icing and we all ate it. Once the boat entered the calmer water (and warmer air) of the harbor, we stepped out of the cabin to watch the shoreline. We were wondering if we would see much snow, and we only spotted a few patches near the water. After dropping us at Windigo, the boat circles the island, delivering mail and goods and passengers on its two-day circumnavigation.
I was traveling with Tom Weigt and Jason Husveth. Tom’s recently retired and a trail running mentor. Jason’s a long-time runner and botanist. We unloaded our gear from the boat and, after the dockside Leave No Trace talk from Ranger Val, we carried our stuff the full half-mile to our base camp on Washington Creek. In normal tourist season, the three-sided and screened shelters on Washington Creek have a two-night stay limit. But there’s no limit during the early and late shoulder seasons, so this would be our base camp for the week. It’s a lovely spot beside the creek, where moose often appear. It’s also the place where all trails on the west side of the island converge, a perfect spot to spend our runcation.
I’ve hiked and paddled this island many times, but our goal for this trip was to run as much as we could or wanted to. Or maybe we didn’t have a goal. Still, lots of people talk of running the island end to end, about fastest known times, say along the Greenstone Ridge, and how to coordinate with the Voyageur to move their gear around the island while they run (it’s early spring on Lake Superior—you need gear to keep warm, especially at night). By base camping here we dropped all those worries. It allowed us the freedom to run without pressure or destination or coordination. We wanted to run simple, carrying nothing more than a small amount of snacks and fluids and maybe a camera. And if we didn’t feel like running, if we woke and preferred to sit and stare at the movements of water or to lay in the grass and watch clouds and birds hover over us, we wanted that freedom too.
That first afternoon we loosened our legs around the Huginnin Cove loop, a nine-mile run around the northwest corner of the island. We ran through snowbanks. Jason pointed out plants with fascinating names, although he spit out the latin name first. Along the north shore the trail turns mossy and rootsy with dramatic overlooks. Our return trip had great views of Washington Harbor through fir and spruce and leafless trees. We had the campground to ourselves that night.
On our first full day Jason and I ran the Feldtmann Loop. Tom ran with us to Rainbow Cove. We stumbled through a lovely fog along the shore and up to Grace Overlook. We found moose antlers beside the trail. When we got to Feldtmann Lake the fog still whispered across the water. We took the spur trail to Rainbow Cove and the rocky beach opened up to us like a milky cathedral. Jason walked along the beach finding agates and Tom and I soaked in the eerie atmosphere, the fog, the sound of waves rolling rocks, the cold breeze, the overwhelming solitude. We hadn’t seen anyone all morning. It felt like we had the island to ourselves.
We left Tom at Feldtmann Lake. He would run back to camp, while we continued the loop. Climbing, we turned to see the smaller lake below us, the big lake in the distance, and a juvenile eagle on a perch near us. We were hot from the ascent but the breezes were cold and wet. By the time we reached the Feldtmann fire tower I needed food and I was happy to dig through my pack for some. I took my shoes and socks off and aired my feet. The temperature was so different in the inland forests and ridges than the shoreline areas. The descent toward Siskiwit Bay was cool and gradual but somehow I was shirtless when we reached the shore. We must have looked like fools to the campers pumping water by the campground and dressed in layers of down. They seemed worried about us. They kept a safe distance. We were fools. It was cold. We had been running over 20 miles. We filled our water bottles straight from the lake without filtering it. We ate more food. We moved along the beach. I reminded Jason that we were committed to the loop now, that turning around would take much longer than moving forward. I wondered why we were doing this. I was giddy and drunk with happiness. I questioned my place in the universe, asked if I was doing life right. We startled ducks. Loons wailed in the distance.
The climb to the Greenstone Ridge rises 800 feet in 3 miles. We took our time with it. We explored old mines. We discussed heavy existential matters that I’ll never remember the details of. We ran through muddy highways of moose tracks. Eventually, we ran through the Island Mine campground and thick and open forests of ash and maple. Once we reached the Greenstone Ridge, our final six miles was a gradual descent. It felt liberating to surrender to gravity and open the legs, a long slide on the soft spring ground.
The next day we went up the Minong, the primitive and rocky and achingly scenic trail on the northern part of the island. We lay down on ancient volcanic ridges. We pointed out Thunder Bay and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park across the lake. We bushwhacked through thick cedar swamps to the Greenstone Ridge. Fiddleheads grew beside a creek. We scared up a moose. It was a blur of brown and a drumbeat of breaking branches. Back at camp, Jason made tea from leaves and moss he gathered. Tom read a mystery novel and identified birdcalls. I sat beside the creek and watched the water flow in and out with the seiche. We may have napped. It was that kind of afternoon.
The following day Jason returned to Rainbow Cove. Tom and I explored the Greenstone Ridge, the spine that cuts across the middle of the island. We ran through birch forests carpeted by uncurling ferns and spring flowers. Once we topped out on the ridge, a lovely blowing snow softly pelted us. We ran boardwalks through swamps smoky with snow. The flakes seemed to sizzle as they hit their reflections on black water. At some point, Tom turned around and I continued east. The trail opened up on rocky ridges to views of inland lakes and Lake Superior on both sides and Canada in the distance. Everything was below me. The running felt smooth and effortless. Twenty miles in, I took the spur trail down to Hatchet Lake and from a campsite watched snow blow sideways across the water. I figured I would eventually get tired and slow down, so I decided to turn around. I hadn’t brought a headlight on this run and I wanted to beat the darkness back to camp.
The climb back up to the Greenstone was steep but short. Yet I couldn’t believe how good my legs felt. I was in no hurry. I was enjoying the movement, running, one of the simplest things a human can do, and I felt lucky to be doing it, blessed. My gps watch died. I didn’t need it any longer. The handcuffs were off. I had been running over six hours and time didn’t matter anymore. Perhaps it was bent, accordioning in and out with my breathing, just as the island breathed in and out with me, my oxygen running through it as its blood ran through me. I was physically tired and I was in total bliss. All my masks were falling away. I was doing this thing I was made to do. In this moment, on this run, I was completely free and weightless.
I was floating down a gradual descent toward a boggy swamp when a sandhill crane took flight ahead of me. I heard its unique call before I saw it. I stopped running to watch it circle. A steady wind whispered through the treetops, a wind you hear in layers, the kind of wind you only hear on an island. Just off the trail to my left, a bull moose stood from a wallow. He turned his head to look back at me. His antlers’ spring blooms were velvet knobs. When he seemed to decide I didn’t matter to his world, he bent his neck to eat, still watching me while he chewed the vegetation. I clicked a couple pictures. Then I moved on, quietly, allowing him his space, in his home.