7 Days, 70 Miles: Lessons Learned Solo Backpacking Michigan’s Isle Royale
This solo backpacker took a wilderness drop by seaplane to Isle Royale, the least visited National Park in the U.S., for a 7-day, 70-mile self-care backwoods immersion. Here’s what she learned on the trail.
A massive, black thunderhead rolls over the ridgeline to kiss the tops of distant red pine, whipping in the wind. A loud CRACK-BOOM vibrates my bones. Electricity strikes water just offshore.
I’m less than two miles from Siskiwit Bay Campground on Isle Royale in Michigan, the largest in a 450-island archipelago in Lake Superior—and the nation’s least visited National Park. I understand why. Seaplane drop provides sole access to the isle’s 170 miles of boggy, burly, boulder-ridden wilderness, at the moment. Thanks to ferries being shut down, due to local restrictions, I’ve hardly seen a soul since my arrival four days ago. I came to chase solitude, catch northern pike, and integrate one of the toughest, best years of my life. I only hoped to see northern lights, dodge moose in rut, avoid wolves in hunt, and get high on fresh air.
But with the storm looming, it hits me: I’m traveling solo, and in the middle of nowhere. I remember the ranger’s warning before I departed Rock Harbor days prior: If anything should happen that my med bag can’t solve, my best bet is to haul to the closest lakeshore campground and hope there’s a private boat anchored, who can radio for help. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, I whisper to no one.
Another strike of lightning illuminates dark foliage lining the bay’s lip. I count the seconds, and less than two later, another BANG-CRACK sounds, much closer. I quicken my pace.
Sweat trickles down my temples mixing a cocktail of sunscreen and bug spray. My 37-lb Eagle Creek pack cinched tight to my torso feels familiar after 50-some miles, yet still heavy. I follow the shoreline over red sand and volcanic rock, hiking hard, glancing warily at the onyx sky over my shoulder.
The overgrown trail cuts into a soupy bog and follows a line of rotted forest-service planks that sink in the mud under my weight. Moose and wolf tracks sprinkle the ferned earth, and a spicy breeze whips blonde tendrils of hair into my eyes. I dip my head as the downpour unleashes, and launch into a sub-graceful half jog. Labored breaths and the pitter-patter of raindrops symphony in my eardrums.
Minutes (maybe years?) later, the trail spits me out onto a buttery single track. A signpost indicates the campground, 0.2 miles away. Thank god. I bolt for it and snag the closest site with a lush tree canopy. I drop my pack, yank out the tarp and string paracord ridgeline between two tall aspen. With focused purpose, I pitch my 1-man tent and toss my gear inside, desperate to stay dry(ish) in the 50-degree weather. Sweaty, cold, exhausted, and exhilarated, I laugh out loud. I made it.
I strip down and pull warm layers from dry bags, grateful for shelter and simple things, like a wool hat. I snuggle up in my sleeping bag and collect rainwater from the tarp's edge to boil for tea and dinner. I mow down freeze-dried chili beef and mac, journal, and read my battered, tiny copy of the Tao Te Ching. I’m warm, full, and safe.
Two hours later, around 8:30 p.m., the storm rages on. As I drift off to sleep, I hear a moose, crashing through brush, closeby. It pauses, and I snap to attention. Please, oh please, just don’t step on my tent, I pray to all of the backpacking gods in the universe. It sees me, smells me, and decides I’m not a threat. In fact, it likes my makeshift shelter so much, it beds down alongside my tent just 10 feet away. I decide not to get out to brush my teeth that night. Screw it, I think, tomorrow’s a new day.
3 Life Lessons I Learned While Backpacking Isle Royale Solo
1. Vulnerability Converts to Courage and Creativity
Of course, going it alone in the backwoods, especially as a woman, involves much unknown. I’ve been travelling sololike this for over 15 years, yet each trip gently reminds me of how little I actually control. When approached with humility and reverence, the wilderness provides a platform for vulnerability, which (when embraced) converts to creativity in problem solving on the fly, and courage to make hard, smart decisions with information at hand. There’s no better way to feel empowered and build resilience, I believe. That said, recklessness and calculated risk are two entirely different things. It’s important to respect personal limitations and mother nature. (She always wins.)
2. Life Can Be Simple, If I Make It So
In today’s “new normal” of navigating face masks and shut downs and unusual life stressors, the pandemic has changed the way I operate, and adventure. Gone are the days of gym classes, or a secure paycheck, or even some semblance of public health safety. But, even in future’s uncertainty and life’s noisy confusion, finding inner peace outdoors is attainable. Backpacking reminds me life can be simple. Not easier, but simpler. It’s up to me to choose a positive emotional experience that makes it so. Whether it’s hauling everything I need on my back to hike 70 miles around an island, or setting better boundaries in relationships, or trusting the process as life unfolds, I alone author my story. Therefore, I alone, am responsible for decreasing the level of stress and anxiety with which I do. Self care, like solo adventuring, is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity.
3. Turn Off, Tune In; Detach From Outcomes
99.9% of what happens in the backwoods, and in life, is out of my control. The only thing I do control is my reaction to how things unfold. In order to respond with grace and authenticity from centered groundedness, (as opposed to a space of crisis) it’s imperative I get outside to connect with nature. To shut off my smartphone. To breathe. To find beauty in birds’ song, wisdom in waves, and even joy in outrunning a thunderstorm. To remember I am part of a whole, and no matter what obstacles I face, I am much stronger than I think I am. While it’s okay—and sometimes smart—to be scared, the unknown has no power over me, unless I give it.
Back on Isle Royale...
The next morning, loons’ calls tease me from slumber. I unzip the tent and rose-gold sun shimmers through pine bows to highlight moose tracks from my camp-mate, long gone. A breakfast of oatmeal and peanut butter sticks to my insides for the 14-mile hike ahead. I pack up soggy gear, hoist the bag to my shoulders, and trudge along Isle Royale’s Siskiwit Bay, still as glass. As sunlight warms my face, Maya Angelou’s words come to mind and I embrace the trail once again, open to the adventure. “Every storm runs out of rain,” she said. I know this to be true.
Looking to travel alone? (It’s easier than you think!) Check out these resources for planning a solo trip the smart way.
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By Patty Hodapp on November 13, 2020
Patty Hodapp is a nationally-renowned journalist reporting from the intersection of fitness and adventure. She writes for Outside magazine, Travel Channel, and VICE among other publications. She's based in Vail, Colorado, and when she's not fly fishing, snowboarding, or trail running, you can find her writing abroad or planning her next trip. Get in touch or read her latest work at HodappMedia.com.