Is this the most ridiculous adventure ever?
It started as an innocent, non-threatening lark. I would hike and paddle my way to the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest lake in the world, which also happens to be in the middle of the least visited national park in the lower 48 states. A virtual Russian nesting doll of idiocy, adventure, or maybe both.
Although I consider myself more of an Average Joe adventurer these days, I’m no stranger to difficult outdoor challenges. I’ve hiked 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, paddled challenging Patagonian whitewater rapids, scrambled through steep canyons in Nicaragua, and biked up some of the Tour de France’s most infamous mountains. I’ve been horribly lost in the backcountry, mistakenly trudged through thigh-deep snow, and hiked my way out of the woods after breaking my collarbone on my mountain bike. But coming out of the pandemic, I felt the need to do something different and completely ridiculous. I wanted to bring back a tale that, in the end, friends and readers wouldn’t say “wow,” but rather “why?”
Recommended Fodor’s Video
Located in Lake Superior (the aforementioned largest lake) north of Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula, Isle Royale National Park (the largest island on that lake) boasts huge swaths of lush hardwood forests, more than 160 miles of rugged backcountry hiking trails, and thousands of stately moose. Isle Royale’s so large that it even has its own lakes, the largest of which is Siskiwit Lake, roughly midway between the two main ranger stations, Rock Harbor to the east and Windigo to the west. Reaching Ryan Island, the largest piece of land on Siskiwit, would be my goal.
I had a simple and uncomplicated plan. A traveling companion and I would take the 3.5-hour Isle Royale Queen IV ferry from Copper Harbor, Michigan, to Isle Royale, where we and the dozens of other visitors would disembark at Rock Harbor. Over several days, my buddy and I would make our way to Ryan Island and back. But the plan soon began to take on water, and as the days counted down, what started out as a lark became a dread-filled task.
I’d always meant to do this as part of a duo, but none of my friends and colleagues were willing or able to come along for what I’d promised to be a fun, but ridiculous adventure. Instead of being able to split the gear between two people, I’d be carrying all of it. Because Isle Royale is so remote, with little-to-no cell signal throughout the island, if anything went wrong, I’d be completely and utterly alone except for my Garmin InReach Mini satellite communicator. Smaller than a deck of cards, the device would keep my loved ones apprised of my progress and allow me to send an SOS if I found myself in too much trouble.
Just as concerning was the route. My original idea had been for us to paddle southwest to Chippewa Harbor, with just a couple of short portages slowing us on our way north to Ryan Island. But more experienced paddlers quickly talked me out of it. There’s a reason sailors and kayakers call Lake Superior “the Boss,” and it has nothing to do with Tony Danza or Bruce Springsteen. Powerful waves can make paddling Lake Superior difficult on even the most pleasant of days, and the weather always has the potential to turn from terrific to terrifying in a matter of moments. Paddling to Chippewa Harbor on this trip would require approximately a six-mile paddle on exposed water, with few places to seek shelter if Lake Superior decided to flex its muscles.
Complicating matters more was my boat choice. This time around, I wouldn’t be piloting a traditional 16-foot sea kayak; instead, I’d be in an origami boat. Yes, you read that right. If you’re not familiar, Oru kayaks are pretty amazing. Made of tough, corrugated plastic, the lightweight boats fold up to the size of a grade-schooler’s desktop. I chose the Beach LT model because it was relatively lightweight (making the planned portages easier) and could haul all my needed gear to basecamp. But against a Lake Superior squall, it likely wouldn’t stand a chance.
I could’ve taken a second ferry to Chippewa Harbor, but my gear—including food, a sleeping bag, etc.—would make the solo portages much more difficult. Plus, it felt a bit like cheating. If I were to do this, it’d have to be entirely under my own power after arriving on the island.
After considering my options, I briefly considered bailing on the trip, but I’d already told too many friends and colleagues about my epically stupid adventure, and my Fodor’s editor not only had committed to buying the story, but she also seemed moderately excited to read it. No one is ever excited to read more stories, especially not my editors. My mouth had written a check my ass was going to have to cash.
Fighting Nerves and a Headwind
Getting off the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry and bowlegged from the weight of my gear, I walked up to a ranger to obtain my backcountry pass. He looked skeptical as I laid out my planned itinerary. Glancing up from the map, he studied me for a moment—a middle-aged man at least 40 pounds over his prime adventuring weight, wearing our standard uniform of a floppy sun hat and cotton concert tee–and knew I didn’t stand a chance and urged me to reconsider. He said the waves were beginning to rise, possibly getting as high as four feet in the bay. His words gave me pause, but I remained determined. As I turned around, I thought I caught him making the sign of the cross out of the corner of my eye.
I quickly assembled my Oru and began paddling into a soul-sucking headwind. While the whitecaps never quite reached four feet, they were powerful enough to bat me around like a mischievous cat with a mouse. I wondered maybe a dozen times in the first hour if I was in over my head (hopefully not literally) and should turn around. The last thing I wanted was my final thought before dying to be “that judgmental ranger was right” as I slowly sank beneath the waves. Paddling hard, my hands blistered, and my arms turned into rubber as though I was 15 years old again and watching Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly” video on repeat.
Luckily, the lake would calm somewhat, and five hours and 9.5 miles from Rock Harbor later, I found myself at Moskey Basin, where I’d make my basecamp for the next two nights. After setting up camp in a wooden shelter, I boiled water for my mushroom risotto dehydrated dinner and attempted to read a chapter of my Robert Michael Pyle book before drifting off to a fitful sleep. Making through a tough first day on the water gave me more confidence, but I was still unsure how the next day would go.
The Race Is On
The following morning, I woke up early to begin my 8-mile hopscotch— portage, paddle, portage, paddle, portage, paddle— to Ryan Island. I didn’t want to haul all my gear with me, so I’d need to immediately turn around and make my way 8 miles the same way back to basecamp, racing both the lowering sun and a potential rainstorm. Slinging the 35-pound pack onto my back, I started off on my first portage, 2.4 miles to Richie Lake. I quickly realized my first mistake; I hadn’t brought standard hiking boots, just a pair of Columbia water shoes with a nice tread on the bottom. Within the first mile, I could feel the skin wearing away from my little toes and the back of my ankles. But at this point, there was nothing I could do but continue walking.
Hiking west, I bumped into a few people heading in the opposite direction of Moskey Basin. We exchanged brief greetings and continued on our way. I was soon alone on the trail save for a few skittering chipmunks and a garter snake searching for a sunbathing spot. Towering pine trees blocked out the rising sun for those first couple of miles. I kept my eyes peeled for moose hanging out in the thick forest but saw none.
I’d been alone most of this trip, but this is when I started feeling lonely. Part of the reason to have stupid adventures is to be able to laugh at yourself while doing it. But as I rued my two-person adventure becoming a one-moron undertaking, I got to thinking: had anyone ever done this route solo? As I assembled my Oru and began the first of three lake traverses, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to haul a hard-shell kayak over these rolling hills and overgrown trails. That I could be the first person to do so became my motivating thought as the day wore on.
As I glided into Lake Richie, the first of the three lakes I’d paddle to that day, its serene beauty nearly lured me into staying. The still water perfectly mirrored the surrounding balsam firs and birches as a loon gently trilled nearby. But I had a mission and had to keep moving. It was then I realized my second mistake. I didn’t realize ahead of time how small the portage signs would be. In fact, I hadn’t put much thought into them at all. But as I navigated the coastline, I realized I would need to be much more precise. I was lucky to have a good map and compass, but a pair of binoculars would have been hugely beneficial (plus, it would have been great to identify the birds flying overhead).
After a 0.7-mile portage, a paddle across Intermediate Lake, and a fairly easy 0.4-mile portage, I was finally at Siskiwit Lake, the largest lake on the largest blah, blah, blah. The ranger had warned me that because there’s not much to block the Lake Superior wind from hitting the lake, Siskiwit could be a lot choppier than the other two lakes. Thankfully, that wasn’t an issue. The paddle to Ryan Island was more uneventful than I anticipated, although I insisted on messaging my wife, who was watching my progress online via Garmin’s website, to confirm I was actually on the right island. I didn’t want to take any chances and discover that I’d been on the second-largest island on the largest lake—I would’ve felt like a real asshole. This wasn’t the craziest thing I’d ever accomplished, but it was definitely the stupidest.
After a celebratory sip of bourbon from my flask, I began my trek back to basecamp. The whole ordeal felt rather anti-climactic. After all this effort in getting to Isle Royale, then making my way here, I felt a bit hollow. I still felt a sense of pride that I could make it despite my myriad of doubts, but as I continued, I thought to myself, “that was cool and all, but at the end of the day, would I have rather seen a moose?” I believe I would.
With each passing step, I felt the adrenaline and excitement slowly ebb from my body, a result of my third mistake. It quickly became evident that a few pieces of beef jerky and a Snickers bar weren’t adequate fuel for the day’s adventure. Each time I stopped at a juncture between lake and land, I paused longer, and my sighs grew louder. Every mile felt like another 10 pounds were added to my pack. The closer I came to my Moskey Basin shelter, the more I felt like a marathon runner who loses all control of their bodily functions just yards from the finish line. The day’s adventure took me about 11 hours, my abused feet looked like a war zone, and I could barely raise my left arm over my head for the next day or two, but I did it.
Maybe 20 minutes after I returned to the shelter, the skies opened up, and rain poured down. I barely beat the storm. I prepared a dehydrated red beans and rice meal and was fast asleep by 10 p.m.
Making Sense of It All
I’d planned to stick around Moskey Basin awhile, but after I woke up the following day, I decided to head back to Rock Harbor early to snag one of the campsites near the lodge. I was bruised, battered, and could barely move, but I also desperately wanted a cold beer and a hot shower.
The paddle back to Rock Harbor was delightfully uneventful, although I was a little chuffed that I didn’t have the same strong tailwind going back as I had the headwind going out. That’s life, I suppose. With nothing else to do on the water, I thought about the last few days. Thousands of athletes with single-digit body fat and muscles for days probably wouldn’t have any problems completing this journey. But I’m not that athlete anymore, and if I was indeed the first person to achieve this feat solo, I could take additional pride in that.
Back ashore, I handed a different ranger my backcountry permit, and she asked about my journey. At first, she may have thought I was exaggerating or maybe confused (which isn’t that big of a stretch, to be honest). Her eyes grew wide as I told her about making it to Ryan Island and back in one day. She started taking notes about my times and real-time trail conditions. Feeling a bit full of my accomplishments, I asked the question that’d been on my mind over the last couple of days: Had anyone ever attempted this route solo? Instead of immediately calling the Guinness Book of World Records, she began with a caveat.
“Most of the people who do that route use pack rafts to paddle those inner lakes in this circuit,” she said, pointing at a map in front of her. “I don’t know if many detour out to Ryan Island, though, but it seems more people are interested in it lately for some reason.”
In other words, “No, dumbass. In fact, you aren’t even close to being the first. Why would you even think that?”
Maybe I should have just gone moose-watching.