I’m on a quest to shoot, with a fully loaded DSLR camera mind you, a few of the estimated 1500 meeses, er mooses, er moose on Isle Royale, the least visited of the National Parks in continental United States, no wonder, Isle Royale is only accessible by water or by air and it basically closes down in the winter. I travel four hours from the middle of nowhere to drive here following the North Shore of Lake Superior to Grand Portage to catch a ferry that takes me to the middle of a more remote nowhere.
The ferry leaves at 7 in the morning, so I drive the four hours the afternoon before to stay at a place near the ferry. I’m off to a rough start when a flicker glances off my windshield. I don’t think it took a fatal blow though as it caught the slanted top of the windshield. No guts, blood, or feathers. No sign of a dead bird in the mirror. Things don’t get better when a trooper pulls me over for going 74 in a 55. I don’t know what the big deal is. I’m the only person on this road for a mile in either direction. Except for the trooper. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No,” not wanting to self-incriminate. “Can I take the 5th?” I don’t say it. I don’t know what the deal is, but every time I get pulled over in a rental car, I get off with a warning. All I can figure is it must be a headache to process an out-of-state license with an out-of-state rental car. He returns my driver’s license and tells me to mind my speed.
I stop at Grand Marais, a cool little town, in fact self-dubbed, America’s coolest little town. I won’t argue. On my last trip here to tour the North Shore, I stopped at an environmentally and socially conscious food coop for kale salad ingredients for a Brooke style salad, a needed change after days of beer and cheese back at the cabin. The coop is a cool little grocery store with a cafe and WiFi in the front. Now this place reminds me of Brooke. Still from the last trip, I took a picture of Artist’s Point at dawn. The Superior Lake is absolutely flat allowing the spectrum of pastel colors to merge the ocean and sky into a horizon-less horizon. A line of ducks in the water provides some sense of the scale. I converted into a print to hang on my wall.
On this trip, I stay at the Mangy Moose, I mean, come on, if you are on a hunt to shoot moose, could you stay any place else? The Mangy Moose is a mom and pop run ten room motel. I know its a mom and pop operation because I meet the mom and pop. Somehow, we start on the topic of wreck diving on Isle Royale. Pop tells me why it is said that the lake never gives up her dead. The lake bottom is so cold, the bodies never decompose. I’m told a wreck diver reported that he could still see the expression on the captains face in the bridge of a ship, with his arms crossed, some two or three hundred years later. It seems a strange position to die in. I can only imagine the captain died freezing his ass off instinctively conserving his last ember of heat while drowning in the icy water that entombed him. My room is named the Fox Den. A Red Fox adorns my sheet. I hike to the Artist’s Point on one end of the peninsula and to the lighthouse on the other. I have dinner at the Gunflint Tavern, eating a Walleye patty with a beer sampler. Some loser guy makes a scene so he doesn’t have to pay his bill, either that or he is just a psychotic idiot. Either way, I don’t feel comfortable with him sitting next to me. The bartender finally yields chastising him for drinking a beer he couldn’t pay for.
In the morning, flags ripple at attention in the stiff wind. The Voyager II sails into the agitated Superior waters. I pass the time talking to a 67 year old woman from Duluth. I only mention her age because she is backpacking alone for the first time for four days. I suppose I’m backpacking for the first time alone at 58, a 58 year old man from Escondido. She has lots of experience having hiked all over the West in her youth when she lived in Park City, Utah and more recently on the Superior trail. She’s thinking about the Appalachian trail. The boat rolls thirty to forty degrees. A lady in the cabin hovers over her seasick bag. Duluth 67 heads to the back of the boat to stare at the horizon.
Up close, the island looks a lot like the mainland, thick with woods and vegetation. I couldn’t be happier with my accommodations for the night. The campground has shelters so I don’t have to pitch a tent or worry about rain. Even better, I can leave my backpack in the shelter while I day hike the trails. All I need is my camera equipment and water. I’m going to find me some moose! The island is just a little over two hundred square miles with 1500 moose, six or seven moose per square mile by my reckoning. I take the trail from the Windigo campground out to Huginnin Cove on the North side of the island. The overgrown trail has a rain forest feel to it, with ferns, horsetails, mushrooms, large leafy plants crowding out the trail. Wooden planks cover muddy runs of the trail. I can see moose tracks in the black mud along side the boards, the moose apparently not as adept at hiking the planked trail as I.
I’m miles into the hike. The only mammal I see is a squirrel when I stop for some pictures. The squirrel has a lot to say to me but I don’t speak squirrel. I think the squirrels are nature’s little tattle tales, alerting everything else in the woods to the presence of carnivores. I start snapping some pictures of her up in a pine tree. The little bugger is adorable. With every click of the camera, she shifts into a new pose of alertness or readiness: looking over a branch, under a branch, wide-eyed, sideways, but never leaving her spot, like she is modeling for me and working the camera.
I make shots of boreal bokeh featuring flowers, insects, and mushrooms as I hike. The woods are too thick to take any pictures of birds. They seem even more skittish than usual, perhaps because they don’t see more than a person or two a day. The flit off into the cover of the pine trees. A pileated wood pecker, a crow size bird with a dazzling red Mohawk flies directly behind a tree in front of me. I quickly ready my camera hoping he will peak his head out. He flies off to a distant tree. I start a pursuit but he heads off deep into the thick of the woods. I nearly step on a garter snake, its yellow striped body disappearing into a bush.
I don’t have much of a sense of a smell. I would describe the smell of the boreal forest as clean. Every once in a while, while walking I catch a waft of an odor. I pass by some pines. Pines smell of Christmas. I pull off a small branch to crush the needles. Cedar smells of Christmas wreaths. Not quite as strong but still Christmas. I don’t stop to smell the roses because all the roses have turned into rose hips. I pull off a hip to try one. Its too dry and seedy. The roses don’t taste as good as they smell. I catch another odor here and there. I know the smell of mushroom but I couldn’t differentiate one from the other on smell. I recognize another smell but I can’t say what its from. Its a spice. It reminds me of the tarragon trees in Northern CA. I don’t see any tarragon trees. I crush a few leaves but nothing has that scent. It smells of a kitchen. The water has a smell too. When near the ocean, you can smell the salt in the air. Fresh water is far more subtle, at least to this nose.
The nose reminds me of the moose. I love the bokeh but I came here for moose. I could easily have walked within a hundred feet of a napping moose without being any the wiser, because of the thickness of the vegetation. According to NPS Ranger Kaitlin, the moose don’t sleep all day but take naps. They will be more active in the morning or evening when it is colder because they eat so much they actually overheat. Imagine that: overheating by overeating. Kaitlin says the bull moose here only weigh 1200 pounds compared to the 1800 pounds of their Alaskan brethren. I’ve read about insular dwarfism before on Wrangell Island with the Woolly mammoths. Could it be that the miniature moose are hiding in the underbrush? I have a nice ten mile hike. I don’t see a single person. I don’t score a singular moose.
I’m ready for my freeze-dried lasagna dinner but my multi-fuel whisper stove doesn’t cooperate. The pump on the stove leaks gas all over my hands. I check the fit. Everything appears as it should but every time I pump, gas is getting all over the place including my hands. The stove works by putting a little gas in a well to heat up an element that vaporizes the gas as it passes through for that nice smooth stove burner hissing effect. In other words, you have to prime the (heat) pump. Problem is, the fuel in the well burns off, but the stove never catches. More pumping and more gas all over the place. I’m not thrilled about the prospect of blowing myself up, but the fuel evaporates pretty quickly so I don’t worry about it too much. Something is clogged in the pump or the tubing. I carried a defective stove 2500 miles. Should I have to improvise, I have plenty of fuel to start a fire but campfires are not allowed on the island. Damn the rules if worse comes to worse, but I know there is a store back by the visitor center. It closes in ten minutes. I jog the half mile to the store. Sure enough, they have a nice, easy to operate backpack burner and fuel. I buy my way out of the jam for about thirty dollars. The two women who run the store lock the door behind me as I exit with my new campstove. On the walk back to my campsite I figure, you are only truly in the wilderness if you can’t buy your way or google your way out of the problem. I wonder if I would have eaten my freeze dried lasagna freeze dried. I think Escondido 58 will have to wait for another time before he matches Duluth 67.
Its still light out. Maybe I’ll get lucky and see a moose on the one mile interpretive trail. On the interpretive trail, I run into an elderly lady and her daughter. Neither are the backpacking type for sure. The two are also camping out in one of the shelters. The daughter asks me if I saw the moose. “What moose?” “The two moose down in the campground,” she says. While I was out hiking the back country, two moose wandered into the campground, in plain site, on the trails. They show me their pictures on the cell phone. I can’t believe it. These two moose hunters bagged two moose from right under my nose. The elderly lady adds insult to injury, “this cute little red fox came right out on the trail behind the moose” The live version of my Mangy moose bed sheet poses for their cell phone cameras in plain daylight on the widest trail on the island. Color me jealous. I don’t like these two.
The night gets pretty cold but I’m comfortable. I sleep well. In the morning, I boil water for my freeze-dried spaghetti breakfast. When I tear open the pouch, I spill a couple spoonfuls of freeze dried noodles on the ground. A bold grey jay swoops down at my feet to pick up my mess. Of course, I grab my camera. The bold jay stays just at about arms length from me as he deftly picks up several noodles at once into his bill adding more without dropping the ones he already has. He loads up. Returns. After three trips, I think he decides his work is done. I have time for another hike before the ferry returns at noon. I take a four mile round trip hike to Grace Creek overlook. I don’t do much bokeh on this trip. I’ve timed it so that I get to the overlook and back to the pier at noon. I make it but I’m walking at a fast clip. The overlook doesn’t overlook much, just more woods with Lake Superior in the far background. I hit the pier just before noon. I turn in my trail tag so they know not to go looking for me.
Kaitlin wraps up a talk about the moose next to the pier. She has moose parts on a picnic table including a twenty to thirty pound antler that I pick up. She talks about frustrated bull moose walking around lopsided because the twenty to thirty pound antlers don’t always fall off at the same time; the trials and tribulations of the bull moose. I chat a little with Kaitlin. She loves her job but is frustrated with some of the NPS politics. She has to work seasonally to work full time which means she works the same amount as a vested employee but doesn’t get the benefits. As she packs up the moose parts, her walkie-talkie goes off. She tells me the Voyager will be here in a half hour.
I’m at the pier. I’m looking back towards the campsite and I see what looks like a rock at the mouth of the river by the campsites. It moves. It’s a moose. I have half an hour. I leave my backpack, I pick up my camera, run the half mile past the camp sites doubling back to the river mouth through underbrush. I don’t have the time to appreciate and observe. I only have time to shoot my quarry. I have a view of the pier. If the Voyager shows up I’ll make a run for it. I take about ten rushed minutes watching and taking pictures before heading back. I head back through the bush, back towards the campsites.
I take a quick look at the river by one of the campsites. A bull moose is in the water munching on river plants. I’ve hit the mother lode. I snap more rushed pictures of the bull moose wading, eating, dipping his head into the water. I know my half hour is about up. I head back out to the trail. The Voyager is pulling up to its berth. I dash the quarter mile back to the boat ramp. I grab my pack, stand only for about thirty seconds by the boat before the captain calls out my name to board. I hand over my pack for storage and board the vessel.
I have some nice pictures and everything I could hope for in a wilderness experience of the boreal forest in a twenty-four hour window: pictures of the moose, nearly twenty miles of hiking by my estimates, an extensive tour of the Windigo tip of the island, an overnight camping experience, and lots of forest floor bokeh.
I end the trip with a coffee stop at the Java Moose Espresso Cafe in Grand Marais. The lady standing in line in front of me hands the cashier, an older lady who owns the store, a bowling ball. When its my turn to order, I ask if she accepts cash because I don’t have my bowling ball handy. It turns out, she somehow uses the chards to decorate her garden. With my mild roast organic Guatemalan coffee, I take the four hour trip back to the cabin stopping only to take pictures of rolled up hay.
The only stone I left unturned is Thunder Bay. Thunder Bay is a small town on the North shore of Superior just over the Canadian border in Ontario. On a family trip back in the 70’s to Sault Ste Marie and beyond, my mom wanted to go Thunder Bay but my dad cut the trip short. She never made it. Its always stuck in the back of my mind. I came up short last year on my waterfall tour of the North Shore. I come up short again this year. Maybe Thunder Bay is just a metaphor for that one thing just beyond my grasp. Maybe its better that I leave one stone unturned.
Oh, except now there is Gunflint trail stone. And the Superior trail stone. And the east end of Isle Royale stone. There will always be another Thunder Bay.