“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” ~A.A. Milne
Can we do it?
The question rolled through my head for months. My family of five on a four day backpacking adventure in an unknown park, two thousand miles away, without experience, and without a guide was a somewhat overwhelming adventure to plan.
But my kids were undaunted. As soon as I said “backpack” they were assured of their success before I even had the opportunity to convince them. The challenge exhilarated them, and inspired visions of Alaska wilderness survivors naked and fishing in streams as they built brush fires by rubbing two sticks together. Thank you reality TV. However, the adults in the household were teetering on the far side of fear. My husband had nightmares of kids falling down cliffs and I did the mom thing where every potential danger is magnified to a situation of certain doom.
I mean, we were planning to hike 45 miles! Someone was bound to twist an ankle, strain a muscle, tear a ligament, or simply collapse under the weight in a fit of tears and irrevocable stubbornness. Or what if one of them became dehydrated, or suffered heat exhaustion, or got sick from water contamination? What if we had a bad reaction to the insect bites we were sure to get? What if we ran out of food, or couldn’t find water when we needed it? What if we were eaten by wolves in our sleep? I mean, anything could happen.
And there’s no doubt about it, anything could happen. But is that reason enough to not do it? I guess we all need a challenge at some point. I mean, we’re American, it’s practically part of our moral code. Eventually, I stopped worrying, started planning, and set my wild fears aside. We talked safety, we read, and we prepared for the trip of a lifetime. For in the end, a complete four-day immersion into the incredibly wild and remote wilderness of Isle Royale National Park is worth every bit of effort, and bravery, it takes to get there.
“One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.” ~A.A. Milne
Surprising discoveries are always nice, but not with your kids, in the middle of an unknown wilderness, with no cell service, two days hike from any help. Be prepared for this trip.
Logistically, you have to think of this almost as planning for a trip within a trip. Our entire 2014 road trip consisted of 33 days, 8 states, and seeing everything from parks to skyscrapers. However, more people visit Yellowstone in a day then do Isle Royale all year, for good reason. It is remote, difficult and expensive to get to, and fairly short on comfortable resources. Do not expect ice cream shops and clean restrooms evenly distributed across the backcountry. There are no motor powered vehicles allowed on the island, and in fact, if you can’t walk or paddle to it, you aren’t going to see much beyond the visitor centers. Everything you need has to be carried in, and out. However, there are other things infinitely more valuable to be found here: untouched wilderness, astounding beauty, and solitude.
Here are a 5 tips for getting prepared for Isle Royale:
1. Decide how long you will be on the island. Spend some time studying trail maps and websites in order to determine which route you want hike and how long you think it will take. Tally the number of miles you plan to hike each day and where you expect to camp each night. I chose the Greenstone Ridge Trail, divided among four days.
2. Purchase your ferry tickets as soon as you’ve decided the dates that you will be travelling to and from the island, as space fills quickly. Unfortunately, this will not be a cheap park to visit. Round trip ferry tickets for the five of us cost $700. Then, you will have to pay a per person, per day, park fee in cash to the captain when you board the ferry. Our fees came to about $60.
3. Acquire your backpacking gear: a backpack with water bladder (for each hiker), a backpacking stove and fuel (nobody is gong to carry that huge Coleman double burner across an island), and the water filter are the absolute necessities, each ringing in at about $100. Also, if you haven’t purchased durable hiking boots yet, now is the time. Taking care of your feet is the most important thing.
4. Decide everything else you are going to carry in your packs. I used the Isle Royale backpacking list that is on their webpage, as it is concise and tailored to the conditions on this Island, but you can find packing lists anywhere. Aside from food, sleeping bags, and proper clothing, these are the things I would definitely not leave without:
- Bug Repellant – and maybe even a face net. Be prepared to do battle with an army of insects.
- A small first aid kit – We used a lot of Cortaid and Ibuprofen.
- Sandals – being able to remove your boots and wear a pair of sandals around the campsite is your new definition of bliss.
- Cook pot, cup, and spoon – for boiling water, eating, and hot drinks
- A plastic bag – for your dirty clothes. They stink. A lot.
5. Finally, before you leave home, make sure that everything you need, you’ve acquired, that everything you’ve acquired actually fits in your packs, and that once the packs are filled, every hiker can lift and walk in their pack. Cheryl Strayed taught us all that this is no joke. If you wait until you are on the island to pack and lift your backpacks for the first time, you might just turn around and take the very next ferry back to the mainland.
You will have to make a decision about a tent. All the really helpful and lovely people at REI will rightfully suggest for you to purchase a backpacking tent because they are very lightweight and take up much less space in your pack. However, we had already spent a small fortune on this hike and decided to use our perfectly good, extra-large, pop-up, six-person car camping tent instead of buying two new backpacking tents. We split the poles, the rain cover, and the tent body among our five packs. Yes, we sacrificed weight and bulk in favor of frugality. This may be the cardinal sin of backpacking.
Plan your meals for each day to determine how much food to pack. We ate our last handfuls of dried fruit at our very last rest on our very last day. I would advise carrying a little extra. Instant oatmeal packets were great for breakfast. For dinner, we split three dehydrated meals between the five of us and found it to be plenty. For lunch and snacks we carried granola bars, beef jerky, dried fruits, and trail mix. Make sure to add some M&M’s into your trail mix! It was very motivating to have that little bit of chocolate during an afternoon rest. Finally, make sure to carry hot chocolate or tea packets. Whether it’s the end of the day and the total and complete exhaustion has set in, or a cool morning where you’re trying to get your sore muscles moving, the hot drinks are incredibly warming and comforting.
Should We Practice?
“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure than an Adventure is going to happen.” ~A.A. Milne
Physically getting ready for backpacking takes time, and nothing prepares your muscles and joints for carrying the extra weight through day after day of hiking, unless you do it.
I planned on getting our backpacks and gear by April, and then doing progressively longer hikes together on the weekends with the weighted packs. Great plan. Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to great plans. Extenuating circumstances like travel ball schedules, homework, real work, summer camps, and every other thing that pops up when you have three kids got in the way. I think we bought our last backpack and pair of boots two weeks before the trip. In an act of final desperation, the weekend before we left I forced everyone to drop what they were doing so we could go for a hike and at least try everything on. Predictably, it rained and we couldn’t find the trailhead. Thank you procrastination gods for that one last lesson in planning ahead. We were “suddenly” out of time.
Within a few days, the house-sitter arrived, the truck was packed, we drove for 48 hours into the Eastern horizon, saw a Twins game in Minneapolis, fished in Voyageurs, canoed Boundary Waters, relaxed at the Grand Marais Fisherman’s Picnic, packed our gear, and then boarded the ferry. We had arrived.
I’ll be back soon with the story of our adventure!