A Weeklong Adventure Backpacking Through Isle Royale National Park


Since moving to Traverse City, I’ve rediscovered the joys of camping. I used to camp with my family as a kid, and this summer Heather and I have camped with our kids several times. Camping is hard work, but there’s something extremely rejuvenating about long, slow days spent outside, around the campfire, and away from screens and modern conveniences.

But I’d hardly classify our camping adventures as rugged. We spend our days camping outside, and our nights inside our camper “Susie Q”. However, last fall, around this time, I did have more rugged experience backpacking and tent camping with friends through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We spent two nights and three days in the woods in nearly perfect weather. For me, that was enough. I was exhausted – although exhilarated – by the experience, and by the time we were done I was dying for a hot meal and a long shower.

To my friend Chris Ledtke, however, two nights in the woods is just getting started. He’s a local doctor, and he and his wife Liz were among the first to welcome our family with open arms upon our move to Traverse City. Our oldest daughter and their oldest son became friends through soccer and school, and we’ve shared a number of fun experiences together ever since.

It was shortly after becoming friends that I came to learn of some of Chris’ exploits in the great outdoors, including his weeklong backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park last spring. Here’s how the National Park Service describes Isle Royale:

Explore a rugged, isolated island, far from the sights and sounds of civilization. Surrounded by Lake Superior, Isle Royale offers unparalleled solitude and adventures for backpackers, hikers, boaters, kayakers, canoeists and scuba divers. Here, amid stunning scenic beauty, you’ll find opportunities for reflection and discovery, and make memories that last a lifetime.

On this, the last day of summer 2017, we wanted to share a bit more of Chris’ recent trip to Isle Royale to inspire others who may be looking to squeeze in one last outdoor adventure this year before it’s too late.

Can you describe your adventure? 

My friend Erik Lindstrom (also my neighbor and a local family practice physician) and I have started a tradition where we go backpacking for a week every year. Last year we went to the Porcupine Mountains and this year to Isle Royale. We both have young children so for now we wanted to stay pretty local but are looking into going out west in the next few years.

We went to Isle Royale in mid May and took the first passenger ferry of the year over from Copper Harbor (about an 8 hour drive from Traverse City). The ferry ride itself is about 4 hours. The ferry travels on Mondays and Fridays so we had 5 days to work with. We are both fairly athletic and experienced and so we had big aspirations for the trip. Of course, we did not get anywhere near as far as we hoped for various reasons but still had a great time.

We traveled 15-20 miles per day for the first three days. With heavy packs and elevation change, that distance can be pretty brutal. After that we aimed for shorter sections to ensure we would be back at the ferry dock on time on Friday. Isle Royale is super rugged, remote and wild. The island has only a single lodge, restaurant and general store but this time of year everything was still closed. There is no cell phone service either.

There were a few rangers about but otherwise it was just a handful of other backpackers, the moose, the wolves and us on the island.

There are 1,600 moose on the island but we didn’t see a single one. The only moose we saw was the one I almost hit with my truck driving through the U.P. in the middle of the night. I came within a few feet while driving 70 mph on a country road about 1:00 a.m. As for the wolves, we heard them howl and saw tracks but never had a sighting. This was less surprising as there are only two on the island now.

What was the best part of the trip?

The scenery and seclusion of Isle Royale makes the long trip well worth it. The island has some really gorgeous inland lakes and coves with backcountry campsites so we always camped on the water.

Besides the scenery, my best memories of this trip were times when things were difficult: the end of a long hike, getting soaked while crossing a stream, driving all night to get a few hours of sleep before the ferry ride. This trip was full of Type 2 fun (fun that you don’t realize you are having until it’s over).

I tend to enjoy life experiences much more when I am taken out of my comfort zone. Looking back, these are the times of memorable adventure.

Did anything go wrong, or anything unexpected occur?

Plenty went wrong. The first night, after hiking for 15 miles, we set up camp and started fishing on an inland lake. I was casting from some slippery rocks on the shore and fell into the lake, getting soaked up to my chest. Prior to the trip I had spent a lot of time and effort finding waterproof hiking boots in my size. None of that matters when you’re in water up to your chest on day one. I also broke my reel during the fall. The whole rest of the trip I had wet socks and wet boots. It never got above 45 degrees and was only sunny on the last day so nothing really dries in those conditions. Also, I didn’t get to fish the whole trip because of the broken reel.

We also got stuck in a nasty thunderstorm on the second night. Luckily we were in a lean-to shelter so we were relatively safe but it was still intimidating.

Because of all the rain, much of the walking platforms over marsh and wetland were underwater. On Wednesday (day three) we hiked all day to a specific location and just before we arrived, the bridge to cross a marsh became uncrossable. We then had to backtrack about seven miles in the rain to get to an alternative site just before dark. We were cold, wet and exhausted. I had been to Isle Royale twice before, always late spring and on the first boat but this was the worst weather I have experienced there.

On the car trip back home to Traverse City, I had car trouble. Because of an electrical issue, we had to drive the entire eight hours back without a speedometer or gas gauge.

Any tips for someone looking to do something similar?

Erik and I spent months planning this trip. We recognized that if you wait for the perfect time to go (with regards to family, work, time of year, weather) most of the time it doesn’t happen. We have better luck just scheduling months in advance and making it happen. We knew that the weather would not be ideal in May but summer schedules become too busy.

A good adventure never goes as planned. Part of the fun is figuring it out as you go!

AdventuresJay Harrington