We were up early again on our third day at Isle Royale – I couldn’t miss my free breakfast. (OK, pre-paid breakfast is more like it.). And we had another full day of hiking planned for us. Weather was a bit uncertain, but we decided that even if it did rain, it wouldn’t be a downpour and we wouldn’t melt. So, dressed in layers, we were going to hike, rain or shine.
The day before we headed northeast up to the point of the little peninsula that Rock Harbor is on. This isn’t a huge chunk of the island, by any means, but as I indicated yesterday, unless you are prepared to do some serious backpacking, wilderness camping, and/or boating, then there are going to be limits to how much you will see.
We decided to go the opposite direction and take a four mile, round trip, hike down to Suzy’s Cave. Between the two hikes, we really have a pretty good overview of this small little piece of the island. Maybe its a representative sample, or maybe not – how would we know?
Anyway, after breakfast, we suited up again with layers of clothing, plenty of water, some energy snacks, and lots of bug spray. Joan even brought her mosquito netting. Now we don’t need to scare people, but bugs are simply a reality up here. Whether mosquitoes, or those nasty biting black flies, they are definitely here. So you really have three choices: You can choose defeat from the get-go and just not do anything up here, or even not come. I’d say that’s the wimp choice and you will miss a whole lot of things to see if you are going to let the bugs make your decisions. Second choice is to acquiesce and let them have at it. The obvious downside to that is you will look and feel just awful, even if you do manage to get some good snapshots in-between batting the bugs away. Or, like us, you can choose to engage in the battle. Bug spray actually does work fairly well. You don’t need the 100% DEET stuff that, reportedly, induces hallucinations if you spray it on your skin. A good OFF works for me for about an hour. I might need to reapply it to exposed skin after an hour, especially if its humid and I’ve been sweating, but if you are willing to endure a couple of bites, bug repellant is a good option.
If you are Joan, though, then you just naturally attract bugs and they will find every possible nook and crevice to get you. She has chosen to do the full-on bug defense which, in addition to bug spray, also includes a mosquito netting she puts over her head and covers her face, neck, and shoulders. Furthermore, she wears lightweight clothing that pretty much covers all of her legs and arms. Most people, in the summer, like to expose their limbs to get a little more sun. But if you are in bug country you need to consider long pants and long-sleeve shirts.
The hike to Suzy’s cave covered a lot of the same kind of territory that our hike the day before did. The forests change in the same way and the temperature changes are noticeable, depending on how far away from the shoreline you are. There are patches of fir and spruce, alternating with beech, aspen, and maple hardwoods. Every now and then, you walk through a bog, dense with muck and plant life of amazing diversity.
Have to talk about wildlife a bit. Isle Royale is famous for its moose. Estimates vary and no-one knows for sure, but there might be as many as 1500 of them on this island. They came over to the island a century or more ago, crossing the ice. They swim between different islands here at Isle Royale, but a swim to or from the mainland is not too likely. Consequently, they have adapted to their niche here, becoming a little smaller than their mainland counterparts. Unfortunately, I can’t say we saw any. We talked to some folks who did. One couple said they saw a family swimming across a bay. That would have been fun. Wildlife we have seen are huge snowshoe hares, red squirrels, chipmunks, of course, and a collection of birds that includes terns, sea gulls, and a loon or two. I saw a black snake of some kind, although, thankfully, Isle Royale has no poisonous anything – snakes, spiders, or plants. So that’s kind of reassuring.
There were a couple of differences between the two hikes that I noticed. The shorelines north of Rock Harbor have huge masses of basalt outcroppings, many of them calving off into smaller islets. When you hike south, though, the shoreline rock formations are smaller and tend to simply punctuate the shoreline with interesting formations. Sometimes you even encounter small bays of dark-colored basalt gravel or sand.
Plant and animal life is variable and usually provides the most variation on this island, but I can’t understate how interesting these rocks are. They are almost all basalt and were formed by the cooling of lava. But the important thing to understand is their age – these lava flows are dated around 1.5 billion years ago, making them some of the oldest rocks in the country.
I wrote earlier about some of my feelings about walking this island. I think that the age of the rocks here is an important component of what the island feels like. In many respects, this is a harsh island – the weather is tough and it takes hardy flora and fauna to survive here. People have tried to survive here and have pretty much given up trying to tackle it year round, reserving just a few summer months as a time to visit – this is no longer a home for anyone. But it isn’t that it is a hostile place – I don’t think that term applies. Instead, I’d like to suggest ‘indifferent’ – the island is just plain undisturbed whether you come here or not. Hiking over its rocks and through its woods and bogs, you come to understand that Isle Royale escapes time.