Hiking Isle Royale's Minong Ridge Trail: Part 2

Lake Desor Sunrise.jpg

The campsite at Little Todd Harbor turned out to be my favorite of the entire trip. Dry ground, no synthetic noises, and a fire pit ringed with logs perfect for sitting - a campsite can't get much better than that. And the cherry on top: hardly any wind blew in from off the Lake, allowing the campsite to be several degrees warmer than the previous night.

I forced myself out of my cocoon sometime between 4 and 5 in the morning and explored the pebble beach and surrounding environs in the predawn light. I had never seen Lake Superior more calm than on this morning, the glassy surface of the Lake dotted with various ducks and gulls. As the morning progressed a thin layer of clouds descended onto the Island, messing up my plans for sunrise photography, but keeping the temps cool for the hike to come.

Knowing that our destination, North Lake Desor was only 5.7 miles distant, including six-tenth and five-tenth of a mile spur trails at each end of the Minong Ridge, we decided to take our time decamping. Dan found some rope washed ashore and using his knife fashioned a set of tongs out of a piece of driftwood. Using this makeshift tool we heated rocks in the fire which were then used to boil our water, saving precious fuel in the process. Eventually, after eating another bag of instant mashed potatoes and milk, it was time to pack everything away and hit the trail for day 3 on the Island.

According to my trail guide and a book that we found on the ferry ride, the leg between Little Todd and North Desor, while the shortest, was also supposedly the most difficult. The hike began with a layer of clouds blanketing the area; along with the cooling breeze blowing off the Lake the conditions were perfect for hiking. We spent nearly 30 minutes tip toeing our way back through the mud until we reached the junction six-tenths of a mile from camp. 

Turning west, we immediately climbed up and out of the forest and onto the first ridge of the day. The views of Lake Superior were fantastic, and as we climbed up one ridge and then back down, it didn't matter that my feet hurt, that I was sick of eating trail mix, and that my camera gear literally doubled my pack weight. 

The difference in elevation from the lake shore to the highest point on Isle Royale isn't quite 800 feet, and  on the Minong Ridge Trail its closer to 650, but those sections where you gain - or lose - one or two hundred feet in a quarter mile or less made this section a slow crawl at times. In 2015 Dan and I climbed up Organ Needle, a nearly 9,000-foot peak in the Organ Mountains of southern New Mexico. That hike saw us gain over 4,000 feet of elevation in about 4 miles, over ground literally covered with cacti, loose rocks, and the unforgiving New Mexico sun. It has been called "New Mexico's most extreme hike."

During our chats about what hiking the Minong Ridge would be like, we would often compare the supposed difficulty with Organ Needle. "If we can hike up that and make it back to our car in 8 hours, then how bad can any trail on Isle Royale be?" was a common question we asked each other. As it turned out, the steepness of the ridges, the trees that conveniently fell across the path, and having 30-plus pounds of gear on our backs made the Minong Ridge  pretty tough at times. The trail may not be as singularly difficult as Organ Needle, but at the end of the day our feet were just as sore.


The final stretch on the third day was the half-mile spur trail down to North Desor Campground. The spur trail eases gently downwards through a thick forest, first pointing southwest before arcing around to the southeast. Dan was several paces ahead of me when he suddenly stopped. He turned to me and said "moose, up ahead, over there!" It was the first moose that either of us had ever seen in the wild; it was amazing finally seeing this magnificent creature, standing over six feet tall at the shoulder, watching us as intently as we were watching him. 

We slowly crept along the trail and, to our surprise, there was a second bull moose just a few yards away from the first. The forests on Isle Royale can be so thick that even a 1,000-pound, six-foot-tall bull moose can blend in mere yards from the trail. Unfortunately, my 100-400mm lens was secured deep in my pack, so I wasn't able to take any pictures of them. Within a few minutes the moose tired of us and moved off, and we continued down the trail. The closer we got to the campground, the more difficult it was to see the trail; it was almost by intuition that we stayed on the trail, and then seemingly out of nowhere we stumbled into the campground. Just like that, and day three was finished. 

The North Lake Desor campground was by far the most rustic and unimproved campground that we stayed at while on the Island. There are only three sites hidden in the forest near the shores of Lake Desor. Site 3 was muddy, so we chose Site 1 which offered the best hanging trees for Dan's hammock and good lake access. It was good to end the day so early, because we both knew final day of hiking, 12 miles to Washington Creek, would be difficult.

We were up and on the trail by 7:30, hoping to get good mileage under our belts before the sun could warm things up too much. I had read that although the third day's terrain was the most difficult, the final stretch was perhaps even more challenging due to its length. The day started much like the previous three - soon we found ourselves back on the Minong Ridge with the calm blue waters of Lake Desor over our left shoulders.

Beaver Dam Crossing.jpg

Warmed up and standing on the naked rock, I applied bug repellent for the first time. Flies and mosquitoes are a menace on Isle Royale in late Spring and early Summer, and as our trip progressed it was obvious how easy we had it the first few days on the island. The first couple of miles behind us, we descended into a birch forest for a 2 mile stretch of relatively smooth and easy ground. It was in this stretch of forest that we encountered 4 more moose, all bulls, within less than an hour of each other. 

When we finally sighted the first moose of the day, it was not much more than 50 feet away on a small rise of land. Each party stopped to examine the other, waiting to see what the other would do. This time I stopped to pull my telephoto lens from the middle of my pack, but by the time I managed to get it out and ready, the moose had retreated deeper into the thick forest and I was only able to manage a single blurry photo.

The other moose encounters followed a similar pattern of the moose casually walking away as he got bored of our presence. 

Having made it through the birch forest, we encountered several very steep climbs back to the ridge top, which would invariably followed by an equally steep descent back to the lowlands. Walking through a swamp I remarked that if one didn't know any better, that it could be mistaken for a scene from south Florida, or that it would be no surprise to see Yoda sitting on a log around the bend. 

An exciting feature of the Minong Ridge is that, until the last few miles, there is very little maintenance to make the trail easier or more comfortable. Steep ascents don't have nice, flat rocks for stairs, downed trees are not cut and removed, and walking over beaver dams is a requirement. The final stretch of trail has two beaver dams that must be crossed; the sensation of the cold, muddy water rushing through my shoes as I stood ankle-deep on a pile of wood created by rodents was one that I won't soon forget. 


With about 3 miles to go, we came across the first evidence of trail maintenance - a several-hundred-feet long stretch of elevated planking to allow us to traverse a thick swamp. The planking, about 10 inches wide and a few feet above the water, was obviously well-maintained, and for those without confidence in their balance probably somewhat nerve-wracking. Looking down into the clear, chill water below we witnessed a number of frogs and snakes enjoying the perfect weather in late May on Isle Royale.

After 7.5 hours of hiking, we walked into the Washington Creek campground. We covered the 12 or so miles in great time and quickly set up our site for a much-appreciated afternoon nap. For the remainder of the day we relaxed, ate, and visited Windigo and enjoyed the sunset on our last day on Isle Royale.

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