The Voyage Continues

Waking up on the water is magical. Our view is spectacular, as is the peace and quiet. We wake to the sound of two loon calls, which turn out to be the Voyagaire morning radio show. It’s 8am and we listen in for the weather and some park history. Today’s topic is the Kettle Falls Hotel – timely as that will be our destination today. The broadcast ends with a “thought for the day” – today’s thought, the word politics – poli meaning many, tics meaning blood suckers. I chuckle and then start up the boat for charging.

We call into base to let them know we’ve figured things out (it’s not so much just pressing the button, it’s finding the small button under the large button that really puts it in idle), and to ask the hospitality service, “Simon Says,” to bring us some hot chocolate and potato chips on their delivery run. I’ve woken up cold, and have a sore throat. I’m feeling run down and figure warm beverages are a good thing. The chips are just cause we’re out. We won’t see Simon til much later in the day, and he’ll find us wherever we go, so we decided to head up to the Falls for the day.

Getting out of our spot turns out to be trickier than getting in. It’s difficult to keep the boat in place so that Sriram can get on after untying us. The wind is working against us, but he gets aboard and we go on our way. We “drive” for hours – following our navigational markers along the way. Many of them are hard to spot (the greens in particular), and we long for a pair of binoculars. We came straight from the lighthouse so didn’t have much prep time. Binoculars were on the suggested items to pack list, but as it’s not noted that it’s suggested for navigational reasons, I wouldn’t have thought of it as such. Still, my 200 mm lens on my camera turns out to be a decent backup, and I often take long range photos of the markers and then zoom in close in the view screen to verify numbers and locations. It works out ok.

I’m also improving my eagle scouting and photography.

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Radio calls throughout the day make it clear that we will NOT find houseboat parking up near Kettle Falls so we’ll have to find parking elsewhere and then make our way up to the Falls in our small motor boat. The fun begins again as we attempt to find a place to land. We call in our location for some advice. Jim, from base mentions looking for spots where they have marked the black dots on the map. I again find myself wishing that the islands had corresponding black dots on them. Jim mentions several beautiful beaches in the area we are boating – we have seen none. We eventually ask him to clarify what he means by beaches, as perhaps he has a different definition than we do. Nope – he means a nice sandy beach. We eventually see one or two, but other houseboats are already parked in the spots, and it’s one houseboat per spot. But in the end we never really did see anything we considered a “beautiful beach.”

We eventually end up simply “inventing” a spot, as we have no clue what to do otherwise. It was frustrating. We’re on rocks again, and without benefit of a sign we don’t know if we’re ok where we are. But we tie up best we can, get in the small boat and head up to the Falls and the old Hotel.

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The hotel is not what I expected. We were told it would be “like stepping back into time.” It was, but in an outdated way. A few cool period pieces were sprinkled throughout (old cash register, fire pit, sewing machine), but none of it presented in a way that made it seem like it belonged there. We stayed long enough to have lunch (and read the National Park trivia cards at our table) and take a stroll before the journey back to our boat (which I wasn’t 100% convinced we’d find).

Simon Says dropped by after our return and verified that our spot is ay-ok – that some of the best spots are “made-up” spots. We’re grateful for the confirmation, particularly when heavy rain and thunderstorms roll in over night tossing our boat repeatedly against the rocky shoreline.

We wake up to a beautiful fog the next day.

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S’mores greet us for breakfast (and by “greet us” I mean, that’s what I made for breakfast). A basket of supplies had been left on the boat as a welcome – and heck, we’re on vacation – there are no rules on vacation. They were a tasty start to our day. The weather report on the morning show mentioned that the evening and following morning would once again have thunderstorms. Opting to not have to search for parking and then deal with the rain in the morning we decided to spend our final night on the boat docked back at home base. But, first we need to make the few hour journey back, which gives us plenty of time to enjoy the view.

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When we got close enough, we radioed in for a pilot and came in to explore a bit of the park on land. We took a drive out to one of the visitor’s centers, walked a few trails, and saw some of the beautiful land-based sights in the park. In the evening we retired to the top deck of our houseboat (which also has a water slide – air and water temps were not suitable for use) and just enjoyed the peaceful night in the harbor.

Our final morning, we woke to this. A beautiful conclusion to the visit.

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Overall, I think I’d only recommend the park to boaters and fishermen. We saw so many fishing boats out, and there seemed to be plenty of great spots for all. House boating turned out to be more work than we felt it was worth. Perhaps with a larger group, so we wouldn’t always have to be driving and/or navigating, it would have been easier, but the lack of easily recognizable parking made the outings more stressful than they should have been. But it was an interesting experience, and I’m glad we did it.


Bon Voyage

Red, right, return. Jeff, our boat “trainer” repeats it over and over again, being sure to drill the information home before setting us loose in Voyageurs National Park. We’ve rented a houseboat from Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats for a couple days and after a brief tutorial will be on our way into the park, alone. The red, right, return speech is familiar. Jeff says, “It’s the ‘saying’ here at Voyageurs,” but truth is, it’s just the rules of the road in boating. When you are returning to port, you keep red buoys/markers to your right (which means on the way out, they will be on your left). It’s how you navigate your way around rocks and such. Sriram has been sailing for more than a decade – and I’ve been married to him for 4 years – it’s familiar to us both. Nothing else is.

As Jeff advises us to “beach” our boat – giving it just a little more throttle after it hits land, I can see Sriram’s confusion. Over and over again, their recommendations fly in the face of everything he (we) know from sailing. But this is their boat, so we’ll follow their guidance while in the park. We go through the checklist for the boat (and our smaller day-trip boat that’s attached) and ask any questions as they come up. We’ve already loaded our belongings on board, and stopped into the lodge store for last minute provisions – mostly beverages. They didn’t have much in the store, so we asked if there was somewhere else that we could pick up supplies. We were only looking for a couple of onions and potatoes. That was easy enough – they grabbed them from the restaurant kitchen and would just add them to our bill.

With our supplies all set we headed back onto our houseboat, Knot A Care), and headed out. A small motor boat trails us as we head out of the main harbor – Jeff is piloting our boat. Guests are not allowed to man the craft until a certain point outside the harbor. Jeff will “jump ship” and off we’ll go. We’ve been given details about where our best travel points are as we head into the park, as we only have a half day and must be tied up one hour before sunset. Once he leaves us, we follow his advice and head toward a section of the park known as Grassy Pointe.

The drive is beautiful. It is the first lake we’ve been in where we are surrounded by shoreline. It’s both secluded and inviting. We see few travelers as we navigate our way through small narrows and open water, but feel a certain solidarity with those we do see.

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The “house” handles well, and things are looking good. We get turned around a couple times, but discover some beautiful places along the way. All is well – until we look for a place to go and “beach” our boat for the night, and then the fun begins. We see nothing that looks like a beach. We’re supposed to tie up to trees on the shore after bringing her in, but there’s no obvious place to do that. Our map (for any sailors/boaters reading – it was in fact a map, not a chart), indicates spots where the house boaters are allowed to “park.” Big black dots, that probably represent a wide stretch of shoreline that has no corresponding black dot to help you out.

We radio into Voyagaire Base. The operator is super friendly and helpful. No beaches in that area, but we’ll see a dot marked on our map of a spot we can settle in for the night. We’re near a series of cliffs and right around the bend is a houseboat spot. We thank her for the info and mention that we’ll get back to her if we can’t find it.

We find the spot, but it’s rocks. Pretty much all rocks. To park the boat, we will essentially slow down and “beach” the boat on a bed of rocks. It’s a mind-blowing prospect. But the sign says to park there. Base has confirmed it. So we do it. I nudge the boat into place and Sriram jumps off and begins to tie up. We get the boat tied up with time to spare before our “curfew.” We try to explore the mini island at Leach Bay where we have landed, but the paths don’t really lead anywhere and the bugs are out in full force, so we retreat back to the boat. But not before taking a picture of our traveling home.

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A few housekeeping tasks await us, anyway. Each night we are supposed to idle the motor for three hours, at approximately 1,800rpms. This will charge the batteries so that all of our systems will operate. We’re supposed to do the same each A.M. Jeff had given us a lesson on how to do this. I can’t make it happen. No matter what I do, I can’t get the boat to idle, and as I try to increase the rpms, the boat lurches forward into more rock. Not good.

Base is once again a brief call away. I radio in, and first take a moment to thank her for the previous help and verify that we should indeed be up on the rocks. She gives us confirmation that our parking job is just fine and I move onto my question about the charging. She hands off the radio to someone with better knowledge and they attempt to walk me through the procedure again. I’m doing everything they are telling me, but it just won’t catch in idle. Finally I’m told to give up, that my batteries (which were replaced just before we set off) should be fine, and if they can they’ll send someone out in the morning. OK.

It’s a beautiful night, so we load up on bug spray and sit outside and pretty soon I spot a beaver on the opposite shore. We watch it for a bit, and just as it’s about to exit the water for the shore so that I can get a better picture, a motor boat comes through. It heads over to our boat and it’s Chuck from base, come to check in on our charging situation. He hops on board and gets it to idle in one try. He walks me through it again and I get it to idle on my first try, too. I tell him that I swear I’d done exactly what I’d just done 150 times with no luck. He replies, “151st is the charm,” and off he goes.

We quickly discover that we were better off before we could figure out how to do it, as the running motor intrudes on what was just moments ago a beautifully serene location. The thought of leaving it running for three hours is depressing. The thought of doing it again come morning, even more so. When it’s time for bed we lock up for the night and shut down.

An interesting first day in the park. Stayed tuned for more of our house-boating adventure.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Welcome to our one and only adventure in Wisconsin (although – definitely see the upcoming “Eats and Treats” for the info on our trip to the Benoit Cheese Company, which was a mini-adventure).

The draw in Wisconsin was definitely the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior (it’s starting to seem like we have moved to the Lake). The Apostle Islands archipelago is made up of 21 islands, the first twenty having been declared a National Lakeshore by Congress in 1970 (the other would come in the 80’s). The varying islands played a big part in the early fur trade and through the years have had fishing, logging, and rock quarrying ventures.

We arrived in Bayfield, home to the Apostle Islands Visitor’s Center for information and to get our National Parks stamp and view the exhibits.

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You can visit many of the islands to hike or picnic, but one of the best ways to see the park is by boat. I wasn’t up for more kayaking, so we booked a Sunset Grand Tour with Apostle Island Cruises. With almost an hour before our boat tour, we walked around the small waterfront and happened upon the Bayfield Maritime Museum. The museum chronicled the evolution of boats and ships in the area, starting with the birch canoes used by the Indians to sail powered commercial fishing crafts and more.

As I’ve found with any historical look at the Great Lakes, it would not be complete without information about shipwrecks. The Bayfield Maritime Museum was no exception. As you can see, there were quite a few.

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At 5:15, we boarded the Superior Princess. The boat was not very crowded, so everyone had the option to be inside or out (and I think nearly everyone started outside and ended up inside, including us). The winds and the cool evening temperature quickly had us retreating inside, but the windows opened, so it was still good for photography.

As the tour made its way around the Islands, Captain Pat acted as both Captain and story-teller. The majority of the islands are seen from a distance. Trees and shoreline – very pretty, but after some of our previous adventures, not as overwhelming a view. For a while I was thinking that perhaps this would be the big dud of our trip. Still, some of the islands had interesting stories.

Manitou Island has been restored to a 1930’s fishing camp that used to operate there.

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Captain Pat told a story about a ranger who spent a full season on the island. No cable, no internet, just isolation and nature (I found myself singing, “No phones, no lights, no motor cars…” in my head). Another had once been trapped in the outhouse by a bear. She’d luckily had her radio with her, and had radioed another ranger who’d come over to the island and managed to scare the bear off. When the other ranger asked if there was anything else he could help with, she said, “Wait right there,” fetched her things, and left with him never to return. I can’t say that I blame her.

Another story was told about Skar the bear (though I don’t know if it’s simply a fanciful story to make a point). After tourists had taken it upon themselves to feed the bears, Skar began to get aggressive and was raiding camps. Many things were tried to correct the problem before he simply had to be removed from the island. He was brought to North Dakota and put into the wild there. When the rangers went back to the island the following season, Skar greeted them on the dock. Skar (now stuffed) still greets visitors at the island’s visitor center to serve as a reminder that feeding wildlife will often lead to the animal’s death.

Moving on to more islands, a watchful eye on the highest treetops revealed eagles on watch, which always leaves me wishing for a lens even bigger than the 200mm lens I borrowed from my sister for the trip.

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Things had gotten more interesting, but it was still not as impressive as some of our previous adventures. But then, they’d saved the best for last. It’s Devil’s Island where you finally get to see what all of the fuss is about. The shoreline is a wonderful burst of color and jagged rock. The natural sea caves are both beautiful and fascinating. It makes for dramatic scenery around the lighthouse.

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The trip back was uneventful and once back in town we grabbed a bite to eat before settling in for the night. A new state tomorrow. Wisconsin – we hardly knew ya. Perhaps someday we’ll get back and explore more of what the Apostle Islands have to offer.

Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions. We love getting feedback on the trip.

Isle Royale – Part II

Our first full day on the island was slow-going. We slept a little later than we’d expected, but as we had nowhere in particular to be, it didn’t matter much. When we awoke, we headed down to the dock. Part of our package included a ½ day rental of a canoe, so we had decided on a day on the water, only to discover that all of the canoes and kayaks had already been rented (early bird gets the canoe as they say). We could come back later, but there was no guarantee that we would get anything.

We strolled around and considered the various hiking trails on the island. While deciding, I stopped into the Visitor’s Center to speak with the Ranger (Lucas again) and get a crash course on some of the vegetation I’d seen on the island the day before. I was most curious about the variety of shiny hard berries (in red, white and blue), as I’d never seen anything like them. I was told they were not edible (they didn’t look edible, so no worries).

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The white berries with the black dot were Baneberry (also known as Doll’s Eyes) and are quite toxic. The red berries also fell into that same category. The hard blue colored berries are a type of lily – the Bluebead Lily. I thought those were really interesting. The bead apparently forms after they flower.

As the morning drifted away, we decided that rather than test our luck waiting on a canoe return, we would hop on The Sandy and head over to nearby Raspberry Island for a spell. Despite the name, you won’t find many raspberries on the island, though it was once full of them (a shame really, as I do love raspberries). We did come across a great rock cliff where we sat to enjoy the view for a bit. Just as I was getting up to leave I noticed some wild blueberries. We snacked on a few before exploring the island further – they were so delicious. Far superior to any supermarket blueberry I have ever eaten.

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We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on the Island (we were hoping for an elusive moose, but alas, despite signs of them, we did not see any actual moose). But there were lots of flowers and wonderful views on the island. The bog in particular had some really unique plants. This pretty flower, which likes to munch on insects, is called a Pitcher Plant.

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There was also a plant called a sunburst which was tricky to photograph. Here’s my best attempt.

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The plants weren’t the only things that were tricky to photograph. After many failed attempts (including while he sat on my leg for a spell), I finally got this guy to sit still long enough for me to get a shot.

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It was a very nice visit to one of Isle Royale’s other islands and you’d be hard-pressed to beat the scenery.

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Though we left with lots of daylight remaining, once back on Isle Royale we stuck to the trails in the Rock Harbor area, as we didn’t feel we had time for a major hike. I spent quite a bit of my time munching on thimbleberries as we went. Having only discovered them that day, and knowing my time with them were limited, my strategy amounted to if it is ripe, pick it. Wondering what a thimbleberry looks like? You’ll have to google one, as I was apparently too busy eating them to capture a good shot of one.

In the evening, we ended up back down on the sea plane dock with a few other people to watch the sunset. A private plane had come in. I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures of it. And of course, we also took pictures of the setting sun.

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With the sun down, the chilly night air had us making our way back to our cottage. It was a short trip, but we’ve very much enjoyed our time in the park.

Saying Goodbye to Isle Royale

The morning of our departure we headed for the seaplane dock for our 9am flight back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula only to find out the plane was delayed 40 minutes. Seemed strange as the skies were clear and the weather was beautiful. Perhaps something was brewing on the mainland. But it was a lovely spot to wait, so we hung out on the dock taking photos and hoping for a last minute moose sighting.

Twenty minutes later we were informed that the plane wouldn’t be coming – mechanical problems needed to be addressed and the part would not be available until the next day. We headed up to the park office to find out what our options were. Our choices? Get on the afternoon ferry if they had room, or stay an extra night, hoping to get out on the plane the next day.

We opted for the ferry (this was a shorter three hour ferry) and then determined to make the best of our extended stay, we used our free ½ day rental to take a kayak out in Tobin Harbor. We’d been down at the harbor while waiting for the plane and it could not have been more flat, so I had no concerns about this kayaking trip. This picture of a nearby canoe shows just how flat the water was.

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We spent about an hour and a half out on the water and simply enjoyed the stillness and the peace and quiet. At one point, along the shoreline we could hear voices of hikers on the trail that seemed to be following us. We’d later connect with some of those voices in the guest house while talking to some friends we’d made earlier.

In the afternoon we made our way over to the ferry and after waiting until all of the scheduled passengers got on, made our way aboard. The seats had filled up quickly. I found a table with two empty seats and asked the two young men who were sitting there if the seats were free. They were, so we joined them.

Alex and Ian had been backpacking on the Island as a final trek before the start of their sophomore and junior years at Michigan Institute of Technology. They were really great guys and we enjoyed a lovely conversation on the crossing, discussing everything from travel, to business, to school and families. And they gave us a couple of restaurant recommendations for back in Houghton, which is always great.

Coming into the dock in Copper Harbor the captain blew the whistle and told us to watch out the window, as employees of the restaurants like to come out and wave the ship in. Staff at the Copper Harbor Inn will even come out and dance the cancan. I assumed he was joking, but they did indeed come out and dance.

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Overall, the experience of Isle Royale was great from start to finish. The staff were fantastic and extremely helpful. And Alex mentioned on the ferry ride that while it’s the least visited of all the National Parks, it is the most RE-visited. With such a lovely and unspoiled experience, I can certainly see why.

Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions. We love getting feedback on the trip.

Fear Factor

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Wise words from America’s former First Lady. And yet, I have much trouble with this advice. For starters, at my age, I feel I’m allowed the ability to simply say that I don’t want to do something (for any reason, including fear) and be ok with that. But, I do like to try new things – within reason. I’ll experiment with foods, and have gone to many new and different places in recent years. I don’t love flying, but recognize it as a necessary fear to conquer for the privilege of exploration. Yet…

To wise Mrs. Roosevelt’s point, this whole trip is a little bit of a “do something that scares you” kind of proposition for me. I’m very much a homebody, and the thought of this many weeks on the road is a bit terrifying to me. I like being close to my friends and family, and I like the comfort of home. Not my things, per se, but my space – that psychological cushion that comes with familiarity. Additionally, I’ve never been big on camping (and rumor has it we’ll be doing a lot of that), so when you add that in, the potential for anxiety was that much higher. But even accepting that, and choosing to do this thing anyway, I recognized that within the confines of the trip, there would be things that would scare me.

I faced one of them today – with mixed result. I kayaked on Lake Superior.

I had kayaked before. Once. You could call it “trip training.” Back in July, I went with my friend Courtney, in anticipation of this trip. Sriram likes to kayak, and has often mentioned wanting to go together. I found the whole prospect terrifying. I’m not a confident swimmer, and even though I’d be wearing a life jacket, my one experience with being dumped out of a raft while white water rafting left me pretty sure that panic would ensue if I got dumped again. He would never force me to go, or pressure me into it, but I wanted to be open to the experience, so on a random Saturday afternoon, Courtney and I went kayaking on the Sudbury River. It was nice. A little daunting at the start, but overall it was relaxing and fun. I was pleasantly surprised.

But kayaking a small river in Boston just isn’t the same as kayaking Superior. Lake Superior might as well be an ocean. It’s so big it has tidal variations. The waves can get pretty high and because there are so many tourist boats heading to Pictured Rocks (where we’d be heading, too) a significant wake was pretty much guaranteed. Still, I was willing to stop into a kayaking rental place and get some information before making any kind of decision.

So, we stopped into Uncle Ducky’s Outdoor Adventures

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Uncle Ducky’s is a family owned business that’s been operating guided adventure tours since 1988. We spoke to a really nice gentleman who gave us information about the tours offered. The tours are of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and vary anywhere from 2.5 hours to 8 hours on the water. I instantly ruled out everything but the 2.5 hour tour. If I was going to give this a shot, it was going to have to be a short trip. After further discussion I realized the 2.5 hour tour included getting to the beach, getting geared up, the safety speech, etc. The time on the water was closer to 1 hour, 40 minutes (which was about how long I’d gone with Court). Even more doable.

I explained about my severe hesitation and asked about the water conditions. I was told that the kayaks were very stable, that the tour won’t go out if the conditions were unsafe, and that the lake in the last few days was only at 1-3 foot waves in that area. That 3 was still pretty daunting to me. He also mentioned that all season only one girl had ever tipped, and that was because she had reached for something outside of the kayak. He was honest about the possible conditions though, which I appreciated. He also provided information about the training and experience level of the guides (all trained and have Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder Certifications). We thanked him for the info, took a brochure and told him we’d stop back if we wanted to go.

I was still very much on the fence. Strangely enough, one of the things that kept the door open just a bit more was the fun array of stickers they had available. As mentioned before, we’re collecting stickers along the road to decorate our Thule roof box with. They had some good ones, and a part of me really wanted to face this fear and earn one.

So the next day we went back to Uncle Ducky’s and asked about the conditions again. We spoke with the same great guy (I really wish I could remember his name), and he said that every trip out that day had been a great one, and that the lake was really calm. I decided to go for it, knowing that I could back out right up until the last second (and could even turn back if absolutely necessary).

We set out in a caravan down to the beach with the other kayakers and guides. There would be two groups for the 2.5 hour tour, and another group heading out for 4 hours. We were paired with 4 other sets of kayakers and a guide named Chris.

Into the kayak we went, and before long someone was pushing us off the beach out into the lake. We were one of the first kayaks out, which made things a little tricky right off the bat. We ended up a little further down than the rest of the group, which made it harder to stay with the guide, which was my ultimate goal. We managed to linger until the group caught up and then started the wonderfully picturesque ride.

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I was having a really good time. The ride was mostly peaceful, and the scenery was fantastic. We passed the lakeshore’s smallest waterfall (at a mere 4 feet), and some amazing cliffs. I snapped a bunch of photos of our travel companions and the beautiful scenery. We drifted in and out of some caves and got rained on a bit.

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Blur is due to water on the lens

Then two tour boats passed in quick succession on their way down the coast, and the “seas” swelled. When we got caught in the wake it felt so big (huge to my scared mind), that I ended up having a full blown panic attack. The fear was overwhelming and I found myself caught between my inability to effectively paddle, and my inability to not paddle at all. Paddling felt like control, even though I wasn’t doing it in any helpful or productive way. Deep breathing helped to calm me down. The wake passed within minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Once it passed, the fear passed, but the tension in my body lingered for the rest of the journey.

Still, I powered on and managed to enjoy the rest of the paddle. We played in some more caves, and even paddled under an arch.

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And, we even finally thought to hand our camera off to Chris for a while so he could get a few pictures of us.

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He also couldn’t resist a selfie.

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By the time we made it back to the beach I was definitely ready to be done, even though it was a mostly positive experience. I won’t say that I’ve conquered the fear. I won’t be hopping in a sea kayak anytime soon (read: ever). But I faced the fear, worked through it, and have a (mostly) great memory and some beautiful pictures.

And I got my Paddling Michigan bumper sticker. Because I truly felt like I earned it.

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Thanks Uncle Ducky’s for helping me face my fear!

Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions. We love getting feedback on the trip.