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  • Monday, September 8, 2008

    Isle Royale and My Pilgrimage to See a Moose
    - Numbers 75 and 42 on my life list.

    Download to Your Kindle (prc format)

    Sometimes I reach up to feel the edge of my glasses to see if they are still on my face. On my drive home from work, I’m occasionally surprised to see that final turn without realizing I’ve already passed all the familiar landmarks. I know I am wearing underwear but I can’t feel it. My brain signals my consciousness only when there is a change; the repetitive consistently blocked out. There is an evolutionary advantage to disregarding the ordinary. It allows us to focus and react quickly to a dangerous or advantageous situation; but the shortcoming is that much of life is repetitive and thus ignored as insignificant. The result is realizing one day I’m 30 and can’t remember where all the time has gone. I can’t smell myself either, but I’ve been on a trail for a couple days as I write this, so I’m sure I stink.
    One night, while my brain was trying to ignore an overdue chore called folding laundry, I stared at a mound of socks on my bed rolled into balls. Each ball of socks represented a day in my life. Looking at them piled together, I felt like someone with amnesia seeing unfamiliar photographs of themselves with smiling strangers. What did I do with all of these days? Where was I? It seemed like I just did laundry. I was troubled by the number of days now piled up on my bed.
    The speed at which this particular year is traveling by is quite alarming. This is the reason I started a life list. The only way I know how to apply the brakes is to do something different, always be thinking of the next adventure, and strive to live in the moment.
    Quieting the mind and living in the present is not always an easy task; I pretty much fail at daily actually. I find that it is effortless, however, when I’m alone in nature… and there is no better place for solitude in a pristine natural world than the island of Isle Royale, number 75 on my list.
    Isle Royale National Park is a series of islands tucked away in Lake Superior about 15 miles off the shores of Minnesota and Ontario, although technically part of Michigan. This archipelago encompasses over 400 islands. All of which dwarf the main 45 by 9 mile island, Isle Royale, with 165 miles of trails.
    Our more frequented national parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone will see more visitors in a single day than Isle Royale will see in an entire year (approximately 20,000), making it the least visited national park in the United States. It is however, the most revisited park. Over 40% of first time guests will return; a statistic that instantly intrigued me.
    Opting for a more spontaneous trip than usual, I didn’t do much planning. I wanted to be surprised. I didn’t want to do a lot of research and expect anything in particular. I did learn about the moose that live on the island however, and saw an opportunity to simultaneously cross 42 off my list, see a wild moose.
    My goals were simple: go to an isolated island, hike, camp, lounge in my hammock, see a moose, live in the moment, and slow down the passage of time. How hard could that be?
    I purchased my ticket for the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry, departing from Copper Harbor, Michigan, a month before this late-August trip. I left work a little early and drove north through Chicago just missing rush hour, then through Milwaukee while of course singing the theme song from Lavern and Shirley as I passed various breweries. Then I passed Green Bay, which somehow I don’t even remember but I know I did. My brain ignores a tedious drive as much as anything… and I do a lot of it.
    After 12 hours of driving, stopping only once for gas, I arrived in Copper Harbor about midnight. I searched for the dock where I would need to be at 8 AM the next morning, then for a nice unassuming place to sleep in the car. I pulled into a motel parking lot located about 200 feet from the boat. It seemed closed, and I would be waking early, so I figured nobody would notice a strange man sleeping in his car. Then I saw a woman walk to the front desk with a Golden Retriever by her side, holding his beloved tennis ball. I’ve never met a Golden Retriever that didn’t share this peculiar love for tennis balls.
    She was heading out the door so I decided to go talk to her and check for vacancies. The dog’s friendliness was also typical of the breed. He dropped his ball and reared up to put his paws on me, a greeting that never fails to make me happy. “Get down!” she said but I really didn’t mind. “Can I help you?” she added. “Are you getting ready to leave for the night?” I asked. “No, just making rounds to check ice machines and what not.” I asked if she had a room available. She did and it would be $60. I quickly went through my options: sleep in the front seat of a small Honda or a bed with blankets and a pillow, shower or no shower, private restroom or find one in a gas station, extra alarm clock or rely only on my cell phone’s alarm, a private place to change clothes or that gas station bathroom. It was an easy decision.
    I put the key in the door numbered 17 and it popped open, unlocked and unlatched. It was a butterscotch colored room with two beds and a hot pink bathroom. The door would barely shut behind me and the curtains didn’t really close all the way, but it was clean (at least on the macroscopic level). Another benefit to staying here, that I didn’t consider was cable television; I could watch Letterman, which I hardly ever get to do since I don’t have the option at home. His guests were the women’s beach volleyball gold medalists, Misty May and Kerri Walsh. It was clear I made the right choice in staying. There would be no regrets.
    The next morning my two alarm clocks annoyed me as instructed at precisely 6:30. After hitting snooze on both, followed by nine more minutes of blissful sleep, I rolled out of bed squinting and stumbled into the hot pink shower. I was soon clean and ready to go.
    When I arrived, there were a dozen people already waiting under an awning, shielding them from the morning rain. The weather report called for showers on this morning only, so I wasn’t too worried. I got my ticket and loaded my pack onto the boat. As I waited under the awning myself, I checked out the gear of the other backpackers, eavesdropped on stories about their previous trips to the island, and watched the workers load several kayaks onto the ship.
    Once allowed to board I sat by the window at a table with four comfy blue seats. I knew the boat would be close to full and wouldn’t be able to keep my own table. I was ok with that, since most people were backpackers, I figured I’d get to meet someone that had common interests. Instead, however, a couple of about 18-20 years old asked if they could have the seats across from me. The girl painted in make-up was obviously interested in how she looked more than the other rough looking backpackers in the majority on the boat. Her boyfriend constantly yawned and rubbed his eyes. We didn’t exchange a word after “mind if we join you” and they soon fell asleep.
    The boat was a couple minutes from leaving. What is this diamond shaped thing in my pocket I wondered, a keychain? My goldfish memory eventually kicked in and I realized I had forgotten to drop the key off at the motel front desk. I told a girl who worked on the boat the situation, pointed to the motel, and asked how much time I had. “Hah, none.” she said. “But if you hurry, you could make it.” The engines started to rev up. The 30 seconds to drop it off and get back on the boat turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I could now scurry past my shipmates unobserved, onto the stern’s deck outside, where I would spend most of the 3 ½-hour trip.
    I leaned against the railing looking out over the side. Michigan disappeared. The horizon and Lake Superior was all I could see in any direction. It was cold. Every so often a chilly mist sprayed from windblown white-capped waves. I staggered to the snack bar, trying to walk on a surface that rolled and swayed, and bought a cup of hot cranberry apple cider to warm up. I moved onto the bow of the ship I stared at the horizon waiting for the island to emerge.

    The voice of the captain occasionally bellowed out of a speaker to tell us some information about Isle Royale that we may find useful or interesting. He tells us that this year is the 50th anniversary of a moose/wolf study on the island. The populations of moose and wolves fluctuate like a set of scales. As the predator wolf population goes up, the moose prey population goes down. With the food source low, the wolf population goes down until the moose population is back up. That is a simplification but you get the idea.
    He says there are 23 wolves in 4 packs and 650 moose on the island; a low number for Isle Royale but still almost ensures I’d see one. I’m not sure why I like this animal but I think it just conjures up images of the Alaskan wilderness and boreal forests that I love so much. He tells us the story of a moose that ventured into a campsite drawing the attention of excited backpackers. Wolves came into the camp and attacked it. The moose tried to flee by jumping in the lake but drowned. The wolves pulled the body back into the camp and begun devouring it, in front of some, I assume now, horrified, perplexed, shocked, disgusted backpackers. Since it was disturbing people, and the wolves would be there for a while feasting, they evacuated the area. A week later, the pack finally finished their meal and, umm, lived happily ever after? I looked around at the other passengers and confirmed that they had the same, “what the hell?” look on their faces that I did. I’m not sure of his point to the story, but he seemed to enjoy telling it. I’ve read several times that wolves are no threat to humans. After his story, I started to question my sources.
    Finally, Isle Royale appeared in the distance. Waves crashed on its rocky shore painted with bright orange lichens. The forest looks like those you expect to see in the north with conifers like white spruce and balsam fir and younger deciduous trees like birch and aspen. There is a good reason for this. Isle Royale is just barely at the southern tip of the Boreal forest, rarely seen in the lower 48, that covers millions of acres in Alaska and Canada.
    There was a quick orientation and backpacker registration with Ranger Marcia before heading into the wilderness. I could tell she had a love affair with this place. She seemed like the type that would head off into the woods alone during off-hours and eat edible plants and berries along the trails. I could picture her finding a rock with a good view to sit and write poetry about how she feels connected to nature, complete with metaphors that give the island human-like traits. She seemed like my kind of person.
    I decide to head to Daisy Farm campground just over seven miles away. My first impression of the trail running along the shore was that it seemed meticulously landscaped by dozens of hired hands. The placement of large and small-leafed plants, moss covered boulders and bedrock, wide assortments of wildflowers, edible thimbleberries right at arm’s reach, were all under a canopy of trees that seemed to flow with the trail just as it should with nothing out of place. This was especially noticeable in places I decided to stop for short breaks, like at Suzy’s Cave, and along Lake Superior’s rocky shoreline.
    I picked several thimbleberries along the trail. I got somewhat addicted to them. They look like raspberries and the taste reminds me of pomegranate. They get their name from the shape. They kind of look like thimbles on the ends of your fingers, but they look more like little red berets to me. I put them on my fingertips just like when we’d put those pointy Bugles snacks on our fingertips as kids. We’d pretend they were witches nails, and walk around with our hands up near our face, fingers curling, cackling, and saying things like “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too”. I hope readers can relate to that story, otherwise, I’m afraid you may all think I’m just weird.
    Anyway, if you still don’t think I’m weird, once my index finger had on a red beret, suddenly I imagined it had a French accent as well (I really didn’t have a choice, it just happened.) Beret Wearing Index Finger doesn’t care much for vile, despicable, American scum. Beret Wearing Thumb tried to do a ‘Rerun from What’s Happening’ impersonation but all he knew to say was “Hey, Hey, Hey!” although I’m not sure that was Rerun’s catchphrase on the show, but I kept my comments to myself. Beret Wearing Pinky just incoherently yelled things like” Viva La Revolucion!” but nobody paid attention to the pinky. They never do. This just fuels his desire for revolution. I was eating them so much that my fingertips were dyed red, the sign of true addict. This dialogue only took place in my head. Does that make it less odd?
    Nearing Daisy Farm up a slight incline, I encountered a nonchalant red fox standing in the middle of the trail. He stood there staring at me. I quickly got out my camera to take some pictures. Not concerned in any way he just sat down on the ground, looking around in different directions, almost as if he was posing. After eight or more photos, he remained unmoved. I wouldn’t have been very surprised if after finally putting my camera away he said, “Ok, now that I have your attention please answer me these riddles three and you may pass.” As another noisy group started to approach behind me, he strolled away from the trail and slowly out of sight.
    I arrived at Daisy Farm and found only one site unoccupied. I was lucky since the next site was four miles away. I unpacked, ate a quick meal (including some thimbleberries that were growing nearby), and relax in my hammock under spruce needles and birch leaves. Even with the crowded campground, the sounds of screen doors from shelters and pit toilets tapping shut, and the sound of mumbling and laughter, it was a peaceful night. The young couple from the boat walked by three times, searching for an open spot. I thought I would once again hear him say, “Mind if we join you?” Luckily, I did not.
    The night was in the upper 40s and remained chilly the next morning as I repacked my gear. McCargoe Cove, 10 miles away, was today’s planned destination. I walked along a 12” plank raised above the ground, with beautiful wild flowers on both sides. I didn’t hear the buzzing until I was right in the middle of it. Bees surrounded me. It was like being in an apiary without the benefits of a beekeeper outfit. I didn’t think they would sting me. I just kept walking through it. My naivety will one day be the death of me.
    So far, my pilgrimage to see a moose was unsuccessful. I worried that I wouldn’t see any. Then somewhere between Lake Richie and Chickenbone Lake, just a few yards on my right, I hear a loud exhaling grunt that could have only come from one of the half-ton beasts. I was temporarily startled but drew the camera from my side pocket like Wyatt Earp. I walked along fallen trees to get closer, balancing myself by reaching for nearby trunks and branches. He was grazing, preparing for winter, so says Ranger Marcia. His massive size and huge rack made me feel very trivial and fragile. His movements were unhurried, living in the moment. He grabbed branches between his teeth then slid up stripping it of leaves. It was fascinating to watch. With great satisfaction, I mentally cross off #42.
    I picked a site at Chickenbone Lake to stay for the night. I didn’t get to McCargoe Cove, three more miles away. I was ready to rest and after seeing the moose, I wanted to stay in the area to increase my chances of seeing more. Moose don’t like hot weather. They don’t get cold until about minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit, so I figured they would frequent the lake to cool themselves. After surveying the site, I found a few moose tracks and many paths leading toward the water. I was certain I’d be successful. I set my alarm for 6:00 am. I’d hunt early, camera in hand.
    Logs and rocks surrounded a large boulder, which I used as a table and chairs to prepare dinner. While I ate, and for the rest of the evening, the periodic cry of the loon, followed by an equally long echo, lifted my spirits. Shortly after, it started to rain. I quickly grabbed everything and put it in the tent and under the rain fly. It cleared up as quickly as it started but would return a little while later. I moved to another large boulder that was a couple of feet out into the lake. I sat watching droplets from the slight drizzle collided with the still water. The light reflecting off the ripples looked like thousands of fireflies swarming on the surface.
    Another reason I stopped three miles before reaching McCargoe was that I didn’t want this trip to be about completing as many miles as possible. I wanted time to relax by the lake, sway in my hammock, and read. Aside from the few intermittent showers, it was a perfect night to do so. The storm clouds moving in reflected many warm hues from the setting sun, creating a dramatic and menacing sky.
    I am a hammock-based sloth with nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to answer to. Finally, I’m beginning to have the frame of mind to answer some, often ignored, but important questions. That is, questions that keep me in the here and now: what is going on around me, what sounds have just entered my ears that I am ignoring, what is my skin feeling, am I paying attention.
    At first light, my stealthy moose search began. (I’m excited to be able to say that.) I crossed over moose-created paths and over puddles from moose-created footprints. It was chilly, about 47 degrees. A thick fog was drifting across the lake reflecting a peach sky. A river otter was enjoying an early morning cold swim, but no moose. I went back to camp and lounged in my hammock listening to the early birds. Their songs are a little different this far north. “Burlap, burlap.” “Tweep, tweep,” some birds said with crazy northerner accents. I moved back to my cozy tent and sleeping bag to warm up. Apparently too cozy, I slept for an additional four hours. The day started late. I didn’t get on the trail until 1:30 and I had over 13 miles to travel. I intended to start at a decent time, so much for that.
    My next target was Lane Cove via the Greenstone Ridge Trail. It was rougher and didn’t look as manicured as the previous trails, but the views were amazing. As I got to the top of the first overlook, I was stunned. My tense body slumped as I exhaled a “wow”. I had no idea there would even be such views or that the ridge would be over 1,000 feet high. There is something to be said for under planning and letting yourself be surprised. (Pictures can’t do it justice.)
    I could see many small islands out in the lake and a hazy Canadian shore. I joined a fellow hiker and sat on the edge of exposed bedrock with my feet hanging over the side. He was on day 2 of 16. We talked for a few minutes. He wasn’t carrying a lot of food but would go fishing each night to catch dinner. He gave me some information about the trip to Lane Cove and continued on his way. I stayed there for a little while longer to take it all in. I knew I didn’t have a lot of daylight left, but to hell with deadlines, I have a headlamp.
    This was not the only excellent lookout from Greenstone Ridge. Much of the 10 miles I spent on it today were in view of the Lake nearly a thousand feet below. I climbed the fire tower on Mount Ojibwa, trying to get as high as possible, and took a few photos. I could see the Rock Harbor lighthouse, over a mile away. I was beginning to fall in love with this place. A couple of generations ago many people fought long and hard to turn this into a national park, to protect it from overfishing, logging, the building of resorts, and other financial exploitations. I now sensed a connection with those people. I understood. I would have been fighting alongside them.
    More trails of that seemingly landscaped splendor was back on my decent to Lane Cove. I was exhausted, however, and the mosquitoes were bad so I was beginning to get a bit frustrated and ready to be finished for the day. Everything was moist and covered in a thick green moss. Sage green lichens draped Birch trees. Long foot-wide planks occasionally raised you up off the wet ground to both keep you out of mud and to protect the land below.
    A particularly long 50-yard stretch of these boards was about 2 feet off the ground. A heavy pack feels like it will pull you down if you lean to one side too much. That combined with a nervousness of falling and the constant swatting of mosquitoes, I felt like I was on a Japanese game show. I could hear the announcer in my head as I walked across. “Alright and he’s off, over the balance beam, crossing the stagnant water pit of snakes, uh oh he’s crouching down to take a picture of a pretty S-shaped snake laying in the water, a potentially devastating choice as this could compromise his stability, there’s a massive hit on his right by the mosquito swarm, that frantic swatting is going to cost him his sense of balance, but wait a minute, he’s back up and he finishes in record time! Stay tuned for more Super Happy Joy Fun Show!”
    The mosquitoes were so annoying. I began referring to them as skeeters, which is now the derogatory slur I’d use when wanting to intentionally show them disrespect. I was constantly smacking and swatting at them. I really don’t like killing anything. I don’t even kill insects in my house. Some I give sanctuary, others I carefully pick up and set them outside in the safety of a bush. Nevertheless, with mosquitoes I got a definite sense of satisfaction when killing one. Sorry skeeters, but nobody likes you. Even myself, and I love all living things.
    After arriving at Lane Cove the mosquitoes were mostly gone, the frustration instantly eroded, and I was thrilled that I chose to hike the extra two and a half miles to get here. The site was right up on the cove and the view angled towards the opening into Lake Superior. The water was shallow for several feet so provided plenty of room for wading and rinsing off. I set my gear down, put on my water shoes, and headed into the lake.
    The water was very cold. Superior is always cold. The average yearly temperature is in the 40s or 50s. It was a bit warmer now however, but probably only in the low-60s. I walked out until I was thigh deep and started to shiver, but it felt great. I hesitated due to the cold but I wanted to be submerged. Before I could think about it too much, I held my breath and went under. It was at first exhilarating. I became acclimated just enough to tolerate it but never fully. I swam further out. My head popped above the surface while treading and I breathed air into my tightened lungs with short, almost hyperventilating breaths. Obviously, I’m not use to this.
    I went back under and moved to shallower water so I could stand. I took a few more breaths, went under again, and swam towards the shore until my hands and knees were grazing large fist sized rocks on the bottom. It felt incredible. A cold swim after a few days of backpacking under a layer of sweat and grim is one of life’s most invigorating moments. I rolled onto my back then to a sitting position for a couple minutes before I would go dry in the sun.
    There wasn’t much daylight left so I started to prepare camp. Periodically I’d stop to admire the sunset. After finally making myself at home, I laid on my back on a bench made of a large log planed down so it was flat. My head rested on my hands with fingers intertwined. I realize that the rush of the day is not for me. I wish I had gotten here earlier. My previous treks have been too hurried, this day included. That is not why I hike, not why nature draws me in. This was it, this simplicity, this kind of moment. Am I paying attention to it?
    I look up at the sky and it reminds that in over four billion years it has never looked exactly the same way. The clouds arranged in this particular combination of shapes and colors, moving in this particular way, will only exist at this moment and never again. I wish I could always remember that when I need to slow things down, live in the present, and see something new I simply have to look up.
    I roll over onto my side, hand now propping up my head, occasionally scribbling in my journal. I concentrate on the feeling of tall grasses touching my skin, the smell of dirt, and start to see just how much is going on all around me. Paying attention to the little things I normally block out is another way to slow things down and to live in the moment.
    Over green chlorophyll and soil, an insect is living out his days with a struggle, drama, and determination that I cannot even imagine. It’s common to see the plants, not as living things, but as lifeless as gravel or mud, even though we share DNA. If they moved at a faster time-lapse pace that I could easily see, turning their leaves quickly towards the sun and roots slithering under our feet, how different would they seem? Would I give them personality? Would I talk to them and give them names? Would I think twice before picking a flower?
    The diversity and cooperation between plants on the island is also admirable. There are species that wouldn’t ordinarily be able to survive on Isle Royale due to its poor soil quality with low levels of nitrogen. Some species of plants however, convert the nitrogen in the air, putting it into the soil in forms they can use to survive. Below me, even though I can’t see it, I know this overlooked world exists buried under several tons of dirt, roots, stones, bedrock, and water, churning away unknowing and selflessly keeping everything alive and growing here on the surface.
    Just as important is the microscopic life, which is so abundant that if everything we can observe with the naked eye were to disappear, we would still see ghostly outlines of it constructed out of trillions of bacteria and nematodes. The lichens covering the trees and rocks look like a single organism, but are actually comprised of fungus with algae or cyanobacteria, or both. The fungus provides structure and nitrogen allowing the algae or cyanobacteria to photosynthesize and provide food for the fungi. One would not survive in this beautiful form without the other. Lichens are fungi that discovered agriculture, as one lichenologist put it. This delicate cooperation illustrates both the strength and endurance of the island but also the fragility and teamwork required to maintain it.
    So much of this activity is going on continuously, and yet, I typically fail to pay attention to it. It’s a magnificent world and largely ignored in the course of the average day. An essentially useless dollar bill unclaimed blows across a parking lot, and most of us will go out of our way to chase it down. At the same time fail to see the priceless things always around us, each one blocked out as repetitive and insignificant.
    The sun was now set, the clear sky still a bright but now darkening blue. The absence of moon and city light made every possible star visible. Periodic breezes hissed through the pines and water gurgled against the rocks on the shore. This is the time of my life.
    SMACK, the sound of another dying mosquito. “Thought you were going to bite me huh? Skeeta please!”
    I moved to my tent to be away from them, so they wouldn’t take away from this moment. I sat up late reading and writing. Occasionally I’d lie on my back to gaze up at the unusual amount of stars that I normally can’t see at home. Complete darkness is something I forgot how to appreciate.
    The morning was chilly but no jacket needed. I ate breakfast, read, and again listened to the loons and other birds. I packed up camp slowly, paying attention to the quality of my actions. I cleaned every piece of gear unhurriedly before carefully packing it away. I accomplished another one of my intended goals. Life was moving at a snail’s pace.
    I decided to go back to Rock Harbor, where my trip started, for my final night. This would put me just a couple hundred yards from where I could rent a kayak for Monday morning. Heading out of Lane Cove, back over balance beams and through clouds of bees, I was hiking along with my head down. I stopped suddenly when I saw two enormous moose in front of me grazing. I don’t know what a safe distance is to be away from a moose but I was certain this wasn’t it. I, of course, grabbed my camera and snapped about a dozen pictures of the closer and slightly smaller moose to my left. It crossed the trail a few short yards in front of me. I could see sores on its hind legs that looked like bite wounds, fresh bite wounds. Did he escape from certain death nearby? Where wolves still close? I really didn’t think about that much. I was too excited about the photos I was getting and mesmerized by its size and closeness.
    I moved towards the larger moose further up the trail. He wasn’t facing me and didn’t know I was there. I creeped forward but still spooked him when he heard something behind him. He darted about 10 feet then must have realized I wasn’t a threat and went back to eating. The commotion however startled the first moose, which had now turned to face me and seemed to move slightly forward. This may have just been my imagination. His faced seemed to have a concerned fearful look. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to violence. The kind of violence that makes you just want to headbutt an idiot with a camera. I backed away slowly but continued taking photos like those tourists in Godzilla movies moments before their death.
    I learned later that moose can be very aggressive during mating season, but that doesn’t start until late September. This was early September so clearly nothing to worry about. Again, my naivety will one day be the death of me.
    With such a wonderful night and being right in the middle of the moose’s world I was on a naturalist’s high. I don’t even know what that means. I just know it doesn’t get any better than this, at least not so far.
    Since I was in a hurry the day before, I walked back up to Mt. Franklin to sit and enjoy the view from 1,080 feet without feeling rushed. Several people came to check out the view, take a photo, and left quickly. I remained. I knew once I headed back down it might be the last I’d get to see it. As a result, it was hard to leave.
    At Rock Harbor campground, I expected to see it crowded and full of activity, especially since it was Labor Day weekend. Other than the side with the restaurant and lodge, it was the opposite. I pretty much had the pick of whichever site I wanted. I choose to stay in one of the shelters. An empty 10 x 15 foot space, with one wall, made entirely of screen, facing the forest and a picnic table out front. Writings and drawings covered the walls and ceiling inside. There were signatures, poems, short reports about experiences, testimonies, and commentary. One thing was clear, even those who wrote about bad experiences from weather or failed gear, they all enjoyed their stay and wanted to come back.
    I left my gear behind and went to check out the slightly more civilized part of the island. I felt out of place. I was a guy from the woods who has been drinking water from the lake and lying on the ground. They were drinking wine on a patio. It’s a very small section but where most people congregate. I thought about getting a meal at the restaurant but turned down the $35 cost. Instead, I walked down a trail and discovered a deck with benches angled towards both the sunrise and sunset. I hung out for at least a couple of hours. A few other people where there too, but all had left before the sun completely set. I stayed, happy to be alone.
    Daylight faded like a retractable roof revealing the cosmos. The smell of campfires started to waft over in the breeze. The first point of light to emerge was Jupiter, then Vega, the Big Dipper constellation, the Northern Cross, Cassiopeia, and a small handful of other stars light years away. Soon thousands of others followed. The sky was full of them and yet I can still only see a fraction of all that exist with the naked eye. There are hundreds of billions in our galaxy alone, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. There are more stars in our universe than grains of sand on all the beaches on earth. Nobody ever believes me when I say this but it is true; ask any astronomer or statistician (if you can find one). I cannot help but wonder how many of those stars hold planets in their gravitational grasp. How many of those planets support life? What color are the plants where their entomological dramas unfold?
    Light emitted from these stars takes years to reach my eyes. In fact, the stream of light from each star left at different times, so every twinkle that I see represents a different moment in history. The light from Vega, which I can see now, left its source in about 1983. That’s before the Cosby Show and the creation of Alf. Think about it.
    The ancient light from Mu Cephei started its voyage towards earth while humans were entering the Bronze Age, fighting wars with copper and bronze weapons, constructing Stonehenge, and for the first time using ploughs, pottery wheels, and interestingly astronomy itself. It is a journey so long that when it finally passes by, I am not using copper for weapons anymore, but in the circuitry making it possible for me to later Google this information about the 4th century B.C.
    The Andromeda galaxy is just a pale white point of light to the naked eye. That beam’s voyage is so old that pre-human hominids were tramping over the same planet, which I now lay, with the first primitive stone tools ever created. Now here it is colliding with my retinas and registering in my brain not as just another pale light from far away, but conjuring up feelings about my life of both insignificance and precious rarity. Reminding me that whenever I am taking my life too seriously and need brought back down to earth; I once again, simply have to look up.
    I wish I could hold onto these moments always. Permanently slow things down. A rushed life finally unhurried. Regrettably, I know it will not last forever; but thanks to a love of the natural world, I will forever know that at any time I can get it back. Even in the realm of the known, without making up fantastical and magical stories, the world can be seen as fascinating, miraculous, and enchanting; and should above all, never be seen as repetitive and boring.
    I had to put on my headlamp to see the trail for my hike back. When I was near the resort’s lights, I temporarily turned the lamp off and strolled with my head still pointed towards the sky, which caused me to veer off the trail and nearly trip. I just couldn’t keep my eyes off it. This was my last night; I had to take it all in.
    I woke up early the next morning to watch the sunrise for one last time over Lake Superior. I went back to the deck. I expected to see others enjoying the view but I again had the deck to myself. Only this time, I sat on the east-facing bench. I didn’t leave the bench until the sky reached its peak of red and orange.
    A couple of hours later, I was renting a kayak for one final adventure before boarding the Isle Royale Queen IV once again. I spent four hours circling Tobin Harbor hoping to catch another glimpse of moose. I didn’t see any but I did see two loons. I tried closing in on them to take a picture but as I approached, they would dive underwater for a minute or so and pop back up in another location, like real life whack-a-moles. They made me look like a fool as I paddled back and forth helplessly.
    I passed by several small islands some inhabited by people staying in cabins. I tried to paddle closer to two ducks, sitting on a log floating in the lake. I hoped to snap a quick picture, but before I could get close enough their fight or flight instinct kicked in and they flew away. Just once, I want a duck to choose fight. That should keep things interesting. If nothing else I’d find out what I’m truly made of.
    I took the kayak back to the beach and returned my paddle and life jacket. I still had over two hours left on the island and decided to go on the harbor walk with a small group lead by Ranger Marcia. I learned about useful and edible plants that I wish I had known about before the hike. Most notably a small feathery plant that is said to relieve the itch of mosquito bites if rubbed on the skin.
    When we returned from the informative walk, they were loading gear and kayaks onto the boat, a long row of passengers lined up along its side. I wasn’t anywhere close to being ready to leave but I didn’t really have a choice. I sat again in the stern of the ship and watched as Isle Royale faded away, a depressing sight.
    When we docked at Copper Harbor, I got back into my car and drove straight through for 13 hours. I was surprisingly wide-awake for almost the entire time. Then driving past Fort Wayne, less than 40 miles from my house, sleep deprivation started to set in. I was starting to hallucinate, and more than normal. I occasionally imagined that something was running out in front of me. One looked like an 18” tall Sasquatch, although I’m fairly certain it wasn’t. With only 15 miles to go, the road appeared to drop off on the left side until my lane looked like a plateau on a ridge overlooking a shear drop off. I couldn’t take it anymore. This was not good. I stopped at a gas station and slept for an hour. I woke up suddenly, feeling like I had just fallen asleep for a moment, and finished the last 15 minutes of driving.
    It didn’t take long to find myself back into my routine, but Isle Royale will forever be a special place to me, a significant part of my timeline. I already want to plan a second trip but I have too many other things on my list to do. It’s not a Yahtzee; you don’t get bonus points for doing it more than once. Nevertheless, there is something unique about this place. It’s the most revisited national park in the country and now I know why. I think I’m going to add, ‘Circumnavigate Isle Royale in a kayak’ to my life list. It would still be a new experience and an excuse to return.
    All life is, is the present moment and a collection of memories from past moments. If I fill too much of my past with those repetitive, ignored memories and am not living in the here-and-now, then it’s no mystery why time is flying by. I used to spend my vacations at home, or close to it, thinking I couldn’t afford to do the things I wanted to do. I was wrong. (This trip was just over $300, including gas.) I have no good excuse for staying home. Life is too short and too important. These 6 days will never be forgotten, blocked out or ignored as insignificant. Every detail will be with me forever.