Took this photo of the Dock at the Three Mile Campground

So your going to Isle Royale, awesome your going to love it!  I visited the Island recently and decided to do a quick write up based on my own experiences.  I’m definitely no expert on Isle Royale but maybe some of my questions about the Island might be yours too.

Note:  When I first started to write this piece I found myself including tips that were relevant to backpacking in general so I scrapped it and started over.  I wanted to keep the information here relevant to backpacking on Isle Royale Specifically.  I also greatly appreciate any input from fellow visitors to the Island.  You can leave your comments below :)

Related from Amazon: Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes

Packing for Isle Royale is much like packing for any other trip except for one very important factor.  Your on a Island!  This means you can’t really afford to forget anything because you can’t just pick it up some place local when you arrive.  Yes, there is a small gift shop/store at both Windigo and Rock Harbor that carry a few supplies in case you did forget something.  However you will pay a premium for them so its definitely better to come prepared.  Not only that, I’ve heard the store only stays open somewhere between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Who’s to say its open when you arrive?  Consult this handy packing list to make sure you arrive prepared.

The water is beautiful but don’t be fooled, it’s not safe to drink without filtering.

What about Drinking Water?  All the Campgrounds on Isle Royale come with a natural water supply either on-site or nearby.  However, these water supplies should be presumed to be infected with parasites. Chemical purification tablets and UV filters such as SteriPens are not enough to kill Tape Worm Eggs.  You will need to either boil your water or bring a approved water filter (.4 micron or lower).

I recommend bringing a water filter as you will waste a lot of your precious stove fuel boiling drinking water.  Not to mention your water will be immediately available for consumption after filtering and maintain its cool refreshing quality.  When available, Lake Superior was our favorite source of water, it looks pretty clear and it’s definitely cold!

As far as water filters go I had a Sawyer Queeze and found it very easy to collect and filter water.  It’s perfect for anyone collecting water for around 1 or 2 people.  If you have more people and your responsible for their water as well you might want to consider a pump system like the MSR Miniworks .as well as a collapsible five-gallon/20 liter water container.  Some of our group companions were utilizing this method and it was very convenient to have the extra water at camp to cook and clean dishes with.

Avoid the Death March!  Yes, this was our mistake and it might be yours too.  This was the idea, it’s a Big Island, we have 5 nights, lets see as much as we can.  Sure, you don’t know when you will get back and you want to make the most of your trip but don’t try to cover so much ground that your trip across the Island turns into the Death March trying to keep up with your itinerary.

8-10 miles/day is very doable depending on your parties experience and fitness level.  However, If your moving slow this could eat a big chunk of the day especially if you spent the morning making breakfast and tearing down camp.  Trying to see it all can quickly become seeing nothing!

Fishing! Hiking is great but also leave enough time to enjoy yourself!

The entire time your eyes are glued to the ground while you swiftly traverse up and down a rocky terrain trying not to stumble and fall with a heavy pack on your back.  When you arrive at your next camp, setup, then have dinner its just about bedtime and trust me, your ready!  Don’t let this happen, remember to leave enough time to enjoy camp, read a book while relaxing in your hammock, fishing, or venturing out on a small side hike (without the heavy pack!).  In fact, I wish we had planned a 2 night stay at one of the campgrounds that allow multiple nights.  McCargoe Cove (3 night maximum stay) would have been the perfect place to relax a little.

Relaxing and just enjoying the Beauty on the Island.

The whole point is to enjoy yourself so just know your pace, your limitations and try to plan accordingly.  If you think you can backpack 2 miles/hour and you only want to hike for 4 hours a day then try to stay around 8 miles a day.  If anyone is feeling run down, not enjoying themselves or feels like they barely have time to take a breath and enjoy the beautiful scenery consider making a change.  6-8 miles/day is perfect for beginner hikers.   Assess all party members and don’t be afraid to alter your itinerary (easier for groups 6 or less – see below.)

Groups vs Non-Groups  7-10 people are officially considered a group and must adhere to more guidelines while hiking Isle Royale.  The most notable of these rules is that you must use the group tent sites and are not allowed to change your itinerary.  There are limited group tent sites at each campground.  If your group or others groups decide to alter their plans there is a potential possibility of hiking all day to find all the group tent sites occupied.  This would suck!

We hiked, ate, and slept in the rain. Trying to dry out!

In addition, groups are not allowed to use the three sided shelters nor the individual tent sites.  This really was hard on us as we had seven people in our group and it rained a lot during our visit.  It would have been nice to use the shelter for a night and try to dry out.  Instead we made use of the available picnic shelter at Daisy Farm and hung our tents while we made breakfast.  Two nights later we were able to dry our shoes out at the campfire in McCargoe Cove.

Do You have a Plan in case of Injury?  Luckily, we never had to put such a plan into action but it’s better to be prepared ahead of time for such misfortune.  There are Ranger Stations at the following campsites:  Amygdaloid Island, Malone Bay, Snug Harbor, and Windigo with a Ranger resident at Daisy Farm.

If injury or illness makes it impossible for one of your party members to hike you will need a good plan.  Ideally, someone should stay with the person while other members of the party seek help.  Never leave a injured member without their supplies/gear in case of prolonged arrival of help.

Also make sure your supplies includes a basic first aid kit and each member of your group has a card that list their name, address, emergency phone number, and any relevant medical information. This would be such things as blood type, allergies, any medications, etc.

Most Importantly, just be smart!  Most injuries will result from your own foolishness and you will be left saying, “that was just stupid.”  Drink water!  Drink when your not thirsty!

Speaking of Drinking – Beer Lovers Bonus Tip – You can Drink on the Queen!  Just a little tip for all you beer lovers out there.  I can only vouch for my own experience but the gift store at Rock Harbor sells individual Cans of Beer.  Off the top of my head they had 16 oz cans of Oberon and Two Hearted Ale.  They also had Sierra Nevada and a few other brands I don’t remember.  It was nice to come out of the woods after six days of roughing it and crack a cold one and just relax on the bench outside the store.  Upon boarding the Isle Royale Queen destined for Copper Harbor we asked if beer was OK and he said, “that ought to be alright”.

Needless to say we grabbed a few more beers for the boat ride back!  You should too :)

View from Mt Ojibway Tower

Did you go to Isle Royale and have some tips for our Readers?  Please share them in the comments below!

For the ardent traveler, buying a new backpack is a serious affair. Proper research is needed, and many factors should be taken into consideration; the size, style frame, fit, and so on before one “takes the plunge.” Nowadays, we are lucky to have, at our convenience, in-store experts and online reviews to help in the process. So, before I was to embark on my first cross country trip in China I choose to buy a backpack for the well-reasoned and thoughtful fact that it was orange. I liked orange.

The expert that helped me with the decision was a fellow ex-pat living in Nanjing. He was a lanky Southern who had bought a nice looking blue pack at the outdoor market and loved it.

“And heck man, it was only like twelve bucks.” he said with big goofy grin.

“”Perfect,” I thought, “This is shoe string travel at its best.”

I took a taxi to the market, found a vender and a backpack, and started with the negotiations. Keep in mind that bargaining in China goes something like this:

You: How much for this one?

Clerk: Very nice price. 500 yuan.

The best bet is to start hamming it up right away.

You: Holy crap! Highway robbery.–Too Expensive. Too Expensive. I’ll give you 5 yuan.

Now the clerk will collapse into a chair and grab at his heart reminiscent of Red Fox in Sanford and Son.

Clerk: You’re killing my children! No no no no. 490!

You: Now way bud. I’ll give 10.

At some point you should throw your hands in the air and storm out of the shop. He will chase you down and the routine will continue. Actually, you should probably use this strategy a few times during the whole escapade.

After 30 minutes or so, a price will be agreed upon. The final price should fall around 80-90% less than the original asking price. Like Dave Berry would say “I’m not making this up.” Following my bargaining exercise I was feeling pretty satisfied. I had just bought a brand new backpack for $10. Oh yes, high spirits after that—the Haggle Master.

I went back to my place and packed the new orange pack full of gear and clothing. It looked wonderful. I was now ready for the trip, which was to be a sizable one of train hopping, hiking, and camping. I was shooting for Inner Mongolia, then Xinjiang, Kunming, Yangshuo, and back to Nanjing. I had the pack, the train tickets, and now I was out the door.

I had almost reached the street when “Snap!” The left shoulder strap busted off. I didn’t worry though. The previous Christmas I was given a sewing kit to carry on my travels—Mom’s always looking out. Once on the train I unzipped the front pocket to retrieve the kit. I ripped the zipper off in the process. “Son of a…no no, calm down. These things happen.”

I sewed the strap back with thick purple string, and fixed the pocket with safety pins that came with the kit. When the train arrived at the station several hours later, I laced my left arm through the strap, and then the right arm and…”POP!” There went the right shoulder strap. I one-armed the bag to the other platform and waited for the next train. While waiting, I used up the rest of the purple string and some of the yellow thread, it was thinner, but held well enough.

After that train ride, I needed to transfer to a bus. I was walking from the station when the straps snapped again, only this time the break was from the bottom. “Mother…aghh, shh…no worries. It’s part of the journey.”

I used the rest of the yellow thread and all of the fine pink thread. The pink was too fine to be durable so I employed the rest of the safety pins, box tape (I don’t know why I even had box tape, but I did), and dental floss. The combination seemed to work. Add resourceful to the Haggle Master title.

On the bus, I put my pack in the rack and reached in a pocket for a book. I had read a few pages when I realized that the zipper was still in my hand. “Forget that pocket! It can stay open.”

I arrived at my destination and set out for a hike. The way the straps had been sewn caused the pack to tilt to the side and pinch my shoulders enough to cause my arms to fluctuate between slightly asleep and completely useless…but the rigging held. And for the next couple of days, though uncomfortable, I was moving along.

A few nights later, I readied to drop the pack to the ground and set up camp when the whole right side blew out. Not my stitching—the whole damn side. My gear went everywhere, and just to rub a bit of salt in, I split my pants in the clean-up effort.

To show that worthless pack that it wouldn’t get the best of me, I borrowed some yarn, blue this time, cut my ruined britches, green, into strips, and sewed the side back together. I even went ahead and reinforced the left side as a preemptive effort. The ordeal took hours. I didn’t even care about hiking or sightseeing any more. I wanted to get back to “civilization,” buy a new pack, and kill this one.

When I got to a hostel late the next day, my arms were asleep, my shoulders were sore and worn raw, and my back hurt from the lopsided sit of the pack. I was beat. Inside the hostel, another traveler caught sight of the multicolored monster of a sack.

“Whoa, mate! That’s the craziest looking backpack I’ve ever seen.”

“You can have it.” I said.

“That thing looks like it has seen some things. How long have you had it?”

“About a week.”

The comment set off a round of laughter

“Where you heading in such a hurry?” someone asked.

“I am headed to the roof to burn this rotten thing. Wanna watch?”

They did, so with the permission of the hostel we went to the roof and burned it in a big chimney type thing—a sacrifice to the gods of raw deals and needling thread. Afterward, I got online and skyped that friend back in Nanjing.

“You idiot! That backpack was a real piece. Nothing but trouble. I thought you said you’re backpack was great!”

“You mean that blue one I got at the market? Hah, come to think of it I never used it, but it does look good. I love the color.”

My sole motivation for heading to Mongolia to fish came from the descriptions I got from a guy in Beijing.  Greg was a giant from Nebraska, and living in China.  He had just come back from a trip to Mongolia and was eager to share his experiences.  Just the way he said Mongolia, with a loud booming voice, sold me on the idea.  “MAN-GOO-LIAA!”

It was the greatest outdoor destination in the world according to Greg; for more reasons than just fishing, but that was especially good.  “Mongolians don’t eat fish.  So the rivers and lakes are flowing over with whoppers! They’ll bite anything. Heck, they’ll jump right in your boat!”  Now, I’ve heard some fish-tales before, but this was Mongolia–“MAN-GOO-LIA!”  Come on, it had to be true.  I left Beijing right away, and headed for Lake Khovsgol, one of the biggest lakes in Asia.

Getting to Mongolia and to a prime fishing spot took some time and effort.  The train from Beijing to Ulan Bator took 16 hours.  The bus from UB to Hatgol, the town closest to Lake, took…well, who knows, I blacked-out after 18 hours.  I had met a follow backpacker on the bus who was also interested in fishing.  “I’ve never been fishing before.  Do you have any experience?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.  I am from Georgia.  that’s just about all there is to do!”

We spent a small fortune on two fishing poles, reels, lures, a net, garlic, and lemons (and bread, peanuts, and cookies to snack on inbetween meals of fish).  We were going to slay them.  After a short hitch-hike in the back of a truck, we had reached our destination.

Lake Khovsgol is billed as one of the most beautiful sights in Mongolia, and it truly is.   Located in northern Mongolia, near Russia, it is surrounded by mountains and alpine forests.  The water is crystal clear and clean enough to drink.  Hiking along, it’s common to see wild flowers, horses, deer, reindeer, a variety of birds, among other flora and fauna.  Gers, traditional Mongolian homes, are scattered spaciously along the shore line.  It’s wonderful.  Oh, and the fish…

On the first day of our expedition, more hiking was done than fishing.  We had to get far enough up the trail to get away from the more established places of lodging.  So after the day was done, and we hadn’t caught anything we weren’t surprised.

We woke up the next day, full of energy.  The fish were just sitting there waiting for us.  We were sure of that much.  We fished and walked and fished and walked, all morning, not a bite.  A lunch break of peanuts, bread, and cookies and we kept walking.  The mother of all fishing holes couldn’t be too far along, we thought.  The next day went in much the same way.  We fished late into the evening, not such much as a nibble.

On the third day we decided to take a new approach.  We would rent a boat, paddle out, and find those stubborn fish, even if we had to paddle the whole lake.  But we had planned to catch more fish than we could handle, and packed food accordingly.  So, after two and half days of nothing but bread, peanuts, and cookies, irritation was beginning to take hold.

We paddled for several hours, threw out every lure we had, and still nothing.  “I thought you said you were an experienced fisherman?” my travel companion said.  I couldn’t get him to understand that being an experienced fisherman usually meant buying expensive equipment, showing it off, and just telling people you know how to fish.  I was starting to get annoyed at his inability to grasp these subtleties of the sport.

“Maybe we should try something different, maybe spear them.  Say, you’re American. Don’t you have a gun?  We could just shoot them.”

“I wish I did have a gun right now!  I’d latch you to this boat, blast a few holes in the thing, and let you talk deal with these stubborn fish face to face! Now, Be Quiet!  I’m trying to concentrate!”

There was a short silence right before a huge splash. “My god, he got one,” I briefly thought, but when I turned around it was my partner who had jumped in the water.  “I’m going to take a break,” he said, “and just go for a little swim.”  Day three–zero fish.

Day four–more peanuts and bread. The cookies were all gone; and more hiking and more fishing.  I was getting burnt out.  Four days and not a bite.  I called it quits early that day, but my partner was going to keep at it.  I set up camp, started a fire, and started reading.  I had gotten comfortable and into the book, when I heard the ole boy running up the trail.  “Hey Nate, I caught something! I caught something!”

“What’d you catch?” I yelled back.

He came running up, stripped down to his undies and shivering.


On day five we hiked for about half a day, but we were pretty well defeated as far as fishing goes.  “I hate cut this short,” I said, “but we’re getting close to Russia, and the guide book says they’ll fill you up with bullets if you stroll over the border.  Let’s turn back.”  Any excuse would have sufficed at that point.

Without stopping to fish we made good time back.  The next afternoon, as we came upon established lodges we had tried to avoid, we were stopped by another traveler–a Canadian on Horse.  “What have you guys been up to? he asked.

“Fishing…” we both admitted.

“Fishing!  Oh, there’s no fish to be had here!  You’ve got to go right over that mountain there or over to Lake Baikol.  Those places are boiling over with fish. Big ones!  You know the Mongolians don’t eat fish? They’ll bite anything, shoot they’ll jump right in your boat!”

I recently read an article on travel website about the advantages of traveling when you’re older.  It had some good points, but overall I found it disturbing.  The “older” author was 28.  Twenty-eight! I’m not in my twenties…or thirties.  But I still go schlepping around with a backpack whenever I get the chance.  Here’s what I’ve learned about following the wanderlust into middle-age:


1.     You can do it (but start somewhere easy)! If you haven’t been a vagabond traveler before, or if its been a decade or two, start by going somewhere easy.  Freshly divorced and thirty-six years old, I dug my backpack out of the basement and escaped to New Zealand.  It was the perfect destination for someone who had been bogged down by “real life” and hadn’t traveled for fifteen years.  Every town had a public restroom that was so clean you could eat off the floor, one or more well-marked hiking trails, and an information kiosk which could tell you where to go, how to get there and even book your accommodation.  New Zealand is so easy to travel in that if you bring your brain, you’ve over-packed! The combination of no language barrier, easy travel arrangements and accessible outdoor adventures make it the ideal destination for getting your feet wet and building your confidence.

2.     It’s the antidote to cynicism. What with climate change, war, global economic meltdown- it’s easy to be pessimistic about the future.  You’d have to really have buried your head in the sand to not be cynical by the time you reach middle-age. Traveling restores your faith in human-kind.  Cluelessly wandering the other side of the planet, I am totally at the mercy of strangers and they always take care of me.  Sure, once in a while someone will rip you off, but everyone could do this, and only a few do.  Other travelers are inspiring and the fact that most of them are younger makes it better.  When you are surrounded with young people you enjoy, respect and admire, it gives you a sense faith in the future.  That alone is worth the price of the ticket.


3. Travel is richer when you’re older and wiser. You have the perspective that comes with more life experience.  Sometimes you even get to show off your wisdom.  For instance, I’ve noticed that a lot of young people haven’t been sick enough to know their meds the way we old farts do.  I heard one girl describing Pepto, Tums, and Imodium as different strength cures for the same symptoms.  Indeed, I’ve gained notoriety among my younger friends for spreading the gospel of Gas X.  I’ve also had more time to study the places I visit, met more people from there, accumulated more background information and more interests. (Yes, I now engage in bird-watching.  No, I don’t knit.)


4.     Even if you’re still poor, you’re probably not as poor as you used to be. When you’re 20 you really haven’t had a chance to earn any money yet.  At 40 you have.  You’ve also had a chance to pay down those student loans, and accumulate more stuff than you’ll ever need.  I’m still a shoestring traveler, but I don’t skip a cool sight because the admission is $10.  And when I’m feeling crabby for no reason I splurge and get the room with hot water and television.


5.     Okay, some things are harder than they were when you were twenty, but that’s even more reason to do them. Of course I felt old and fat climbing pyramids with all those healthy youth, but extending yourself is the only way to improve (or at least maintain) your physical fitness.  What’s the alternative – sit in the office eight or ten hours per day as your butt slowly spreads to overflow the seat of the chair?  Unfortunately, the extra challenge is not limited to physical activity.  Sitting in Spanish classes I often lament the fact that try as I do, I just can’t pick it up as quickly as most of the younger students.  Here again, this is even more reason to do it.  Must exercise the gray matter. I do have the advantage having all those hours that I can’t sleep at night (bienvenida a menapausia!) to study.

Bottom line: don’t let age stop you.  People will even yield seats on the bus to you once those gray hairs start to show.

New Zealand. Photo by Mrs. Gemstone.