A Crash Course in Backpacking

Hello! This is part 2 of my Isle Royale backpacking travelogue! If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you’ll want to start there!

July 22, Day 1 (continued)

Lets see, where were we? Oh yes, just off the ferry at Rock Harbor with 50+ pound packs, ominous clouds, and 2.7 miles to our first stop on this eight night tour – the aptly named Three Mile campground.

It’s 3:30 pm when I take my very first steps as a backpacker, accompanied by a fine mist from the leaden skies. Like with my first moments as an RVer, I take a video to commemorate the occasion, and it’ll be posted on the new, dedicated IO YouTube channel when it goes live.

I’m not going to lie folks, it’s not exactly fun. I hike three plus miles on a pretty regular basis, but despite having my pack fitted at an REI prior to leaving, doing my best to distribute weight properly, and cinching the straps and buckles tightly, my shoulders still hurt.

About here I should mention that this pack I’m using belongs to Julie’s father, who is six inches taller than me and has a decidedly different body type. The pack Julie is using belongs to her sister who is roughly the same height she is (5’8”). Originally we thought I’d use her sister’s pack since I’m 5’6” and she would use her father’s, but it turns out her sister’s pack is much less adjustable and it was already on the smallest setting. Her father’s was adjustable down to someone of my torso size, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good fit.

I’ve learned a lot about backpacking in the weeks we’ve been getting ready for this trip. For starters, when you walk into an outfitter store, you’ll see customers walking around in backpacks sometimes. Those people are shopping for a pack, and they’re using weights in that pack and test driving it around the store while doing other shopping. Like with a pair of shoes, it can take a while to discover if a pack actually fits well, it’s an involved process. Having borrowed most of my gear I’ve saved a lot of money on this trip, but in doing so I’m going to lose some measure of comfort.

While I don’t mention it much in the narrative, we take a LOT of breaks

The first half-hour I spend staring straight down at the trail and watching my footing closely. Having effectively gone from 140 lbs to 190 lbs and having 50 of those pounds strapped to my back has really shifted my center of gravity and that combined with the muddy trail conditions (there’s been a lot of rain in this part of the country this summer) makes walking a lot more complicated than it usually is. I didn’t do any training with the backpack ahead of time other than having it fitted, and my normal day pack for hikes is a biking style Camelbak – read: slim and low profile. This is a whole different animal.

Rock Harbor Trail follows the coast of Lake Superior, and it’s very pretty. After an initial adjustment period I feel competent enough to actually pay attention to where we are.

Woah, it’s quite nice, isn’t it?

Not far after that we hit our first obstacle, a downed tree. It’s high enough that we can’t climb over it and low enough that we can’t duck under it with the packs on. So the packs come off. Not far after that comes our one cave of the trip: Suzy’s cave. It’s pretty small but kind of neat. Worth the slight detour I’d say, but not easy to photograph as dark as it is today.

By the time we reach Three Mile, I feel like I’ve gone six. It’s 5:30 pm now, but there are still spots open, which we’re both grateful to see. We were warned by the rangers at orientation that the campgrounds fill up this time of year and that we should share sites if that happens.

We’re surprised to see that this campground has screened shelters in addition to tent sites, none of the literature I’d looked at ahead of time mentioned this. It’s much appreciated, as it means we won’t have to worry about the tent tonight with the strong likelihood of rain, and also makes for shorter camp set up on this first, tiring day. Our shelter has a view of Lake Superior and the dock, quite nice.

Why the dock? Isle Royale isn’t just for backpacking, a number of people tour the park via canoe, kayak, or motor boat, and the dock accommodates nautical travelers. After heating up supper, unpacking our sleeping gear and performing other necessary tasks, I take my poi out onto the dock for some unwind time. I was a little worried about how well my sore shoulders would do, but the instant the backpack comes off, they feel fine.

For those interested in my poi journey, I set intentions to get a trick called hyperloops down while here, and this is a picture of one.

After about 15 minutes, I spy a darker band of clouds moving in over the treetops to the west. Our rain has finally arrived. Julie and I get back to the shelter just in time, and are lulled to sleep early by the sound of rain on the shelter roof.

July 23, Day 2

Today’s the first full day of hiking. It’s 8.3 miles from Three Mile to tonight’s destination, Moskey Basin campground. Although if things get bad, Daisy Farm is only 3.9 miles away between them.

We actually set up three potential itineraries for this trip, depending on how we’re feeling and what the weather does. Being on the island eight nights means we can take short days, or have longer days and take rest days.

The first half-hour is pretty bad again. But after our first break, it’s much better. Maybe my body is accepting that this is happening and there is no point in complaining. On one of the (many) boardwalks crossing a marshy area, I stage a photo of me balancing precariously. I use the term boardwalk loosely here, as these crossings are literally a single board wide. It’s a relatively wide board so normally that would prove no challenge to cross at all, but with the huge pack on, I am legitimately worried about losing my balance and falling off one of these. Especially today, with the ground so wet after last night’s rain.

Julie does tip over today, on a rocky area with uneven footing. She asks me to take a picture of the incident for posterity, but it ends up looking more like a photoshoot with her artfully sprawled across the rocks. She’s uninjured and in good spirits, but lands on one of her water bottles, cracking the top of it. I discovered this morning that my camelbak has a slight leak (or I hope it’s slight), which means both our water supplies are now compromised. Hopefully this doesn’t come back to bite us in the butt later. The water bottle is still usable so long as it is stored upright, so we attach it to the outside of her pack.

Today we discover the spider-slugs.

The foliage glistens with dew drops after the rain, and there are a lot of slugs on the trail. But while walking along, minding my own business, I come to a screeching halt when I spy a slug at eye level on the trail, dangling from a slim thread of mucus.

Is this normal?? I never recall seeing slugs hanging from trees before. We keep a closer eye out after this to avoid walking into them. The wet conditions aren’t all bad though, the flowers look really pretty and happy. Taking pictures of them is more challenging with the pack on though.

Less pretty, but still kind of interesting, are the large open pits filled with stagnant water. These are old copper mines, made by the Siskowit Mining Company between 1849 and 1855. They were one of the first mining operations on Isle Royale and others followed, but reportedly none of them did very well.

Here, you can have a flower picture instead of a mine picture.

We arrive at Daisy Farm around 12:30 (yes, it has lots of daisies) and make it our lunch stop before continuing to Moskey Basin.

Our general meal ideas are as such: breakfast is a Cliff Bar or some other meal bar. Lunch is tortillas with tuna or peanut butter and nutella. Snacks are trail mix, Kind bars, beef sticks, and cheese (yes, those little round Babybel cheeses encased in red wax will last a few days without refrigeration if the weather isn’t hot). Supper is a shared dehydrated backpacker meal – we have some from Backpacker’s Pantry, Mountain House, and Good To-Go. We also have three packages of Idahoan brand instant mashed potatoes (surprisingly good), one dehydrated dessert, and one dehydrated breakfast (for a short or rest day).

This may sound like a perfectly reasonable amount of food, but that’s only because I haven’t shared the volume yet. We have 30 beef sticks, 15 cheeses, 20 Kind bars, almost 2 pounds of peanut butter, and 1 cup of trail mix each, per day (lets not go into how much that weighs or how much it cost). Over the course of Day 2 I come to the realization that despite this much physical activity, I simply cannot eat that much food. But hey, we definitely won’t starve.

After lunch an amazing thing happens, the sun comes out. Off go the light jackets. As the afternoon drags on, my pace slows and we have to take more frequent stops, my shoulders are killing me again. When we finally cross the creek to get to tonight’s camp, it’s not a moment too soon.

Again we’re camped right along Lake Superior, and again we choose a shelter since one is available. This ends up being my favorite camp of the trip, look at this view.

Large slabs of rock go right out into the water. Julie and I take our dirty clothes out and rinse them off, and then change into swimsuits and rinse ourselves off. Yes, it’s cold. About comparable to swimming in the Pacific off the coast of Vancouver earlier this month. But it feels nice to be clean(er). After drying off and changing we have supper right by the water as the sun goes down.

July 24, Day 3

Today we leave the shore behind and strike inland up to Greenstone Ridge. It’s only 5.9 miles, but a lot of elevation change, so we suspect it’ll be a harder day. From Moskey Basin we take Lake Richie Trail up to Lake Richie campground (2.3 miles) and from Lake Richie, Indian Portage Trail up to West Chickenbone Lake campground – tonight’s stopping point.

A still morning at Moskey Basin

I struggle from the beginning.

I didn’t load my pack well this morning and my right shoulder quickly starts hurting. Plus it’s warmer today and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Before long the sweat is soaking through my shirt. Taking breaks doesn’t help either condition much although Julie and I do what we can to fix my pack – short of pulling everything out.

I still pose for the camera, even though I’m hurting

Hiking sucks today. But from other hard hikes I’ve done, I know that it’s not always a fun walk in the woods. Sometimes a good hike is about the journey, and sometimes it’s the feeling of accomplishment that comes at the end when the hardship is over. While I generally prefer my hikes to be fun both during and after the walking (I’m not a speed walker and like to stop to smell the roses while I hike), I suspect backpacking fits more into that second category.

We stop on the shore of Lake Richie for lunch and slather on more sunscreen. After lunch I start feeling decidedly off, but it takes me a while to place what’s wrong.

If the morning was hard, the afternoon is torture. I take no pictures because I’m focused on just putting one foot in front of the other. And then it happens: on a boardwalk crossing a marshy area, I lose my balance and my left foot goes flying out into space.

In moments I’m on my hands and knees… but still on the boardwalk at least. My left foot managed to land on one of the struts and is still dry, I haven’t injured anything. Julie helps me back up and I shuffle the rest of the way to solid ground.

Another picture from the morning

My head kind of hurts, I feel kind of dizzy, and kind of nauseous. All three symptoms are borderline, not strong enough for me to say “I have a headache” for instance, but combined are enough to make me feel pretty awful when combined with the physical activity.

They’re classic symptoms of dehydration. Once this dawns on me, I increase my water intake (fortunately my camelbak leak turned out to be very small), but it’s too late to help much for today’s hike. By the time we reach Chickenbone, I’m pretty much in tears. We get the last campsite available – a tiny little spot surrounded by boggy forest without a lake view and infested with mosquitoes, but it doesn’t matter. I’m so very happy to be here. The Ferry Guys are also here, camped in one of the prime spots on the water. They must have traveled by a different route as we haven’t seen them since Rock Harbor.

I drink a lot of water that evening, and have to go pee every half-hour it feels like (all campgrounds have outhouses fortunately). But I’m hopeful that it’ll pay off tomorrow. And if I still feel off? Perhaps we’ll take a rest day…

Cliffhanger, gasp! Nah, I can’t do that to you guys. For those who worry, Day 3 was the worst. It gets better from here. 🙂

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20 Responses to A Crash Course in Backpacking

  1. Jerry Minchey August 8, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    Better to cut the weight . With the right gear you shouldn’t have to carry more than 32 lbs for a week long trip. The lighter weight will make everything better.

    • Becky August 9, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

      Yes Jerry, I figured out on Day 1 that lighter is better! I’ve learned a lot from this trip and will write about the lessons learned at a later date, but for this travelogue I’m just telling it like it was.

  2. Diane Ely August 8, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

    Lightweight and ultralight is the big thing (no pun intended) in backpacking these days. There is much written on the subject, both on paper and on line.

    • Becky August 9, 2017 at 12:38 pm #

      Yes Diane, I learned a lot these eight days and will do better next time.

  3. Ethan August 8, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    So.. I’ve come to realization that physical activities don’t change my overall need for calories much. There’s a very nice article about this, if you’re interested, stating that the maximum calories expense per day you can influence by physical activities is only about 10-20%(max) of the usual daily value.

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-exercise-paradox/

    So. Nowadays, on backpacking trips, or long day hikes, I just pack max 2k cal a day and snack on what I like to eat on the trail. Some salty food (baked chips are my absolute favorite!!!)

    Anyway, nice to read your story! Makes me want to go there too! But definitely not on a 50# bag. Bravo for fighting through all the pain! All my backpacking trip was done with 40# or less, and yet I was still complaining about the weight and want lighter stuffs.

    • Becky August 9, 2017 at 12:43 pm #

      Interesting article Ethan, although I’m not a member so I can’t read it. I ended up increasing my calorie intake a bit on the hike (just to get rid of the weight in food!) but not nearly as much as I ‘should have’ according to backpacking websites and yet I didn’t lose any appreciable weight on the trip. Sounds legit.

      I totally get why so many backpackers are obsessed with going light now. If only the ultralight gear didn’t cost so much!

  4. Linda Sand August 8, 2017 at 3:43 pm #

    My pack usually weighed about 40#s but we only went for weekends and only as far as the first campsite in our favorite park. Still going up and down that one steep hill was a challenge. Our daughter, who was three years old on our first trip with her, had a simple day pack to which we kept adding stuff until she stopped running so far ahead of us. 🙂

    • Becky August 9, 2017 at 12:46 pm #

      Haha, a good tactic Linda. Sounds like some great family memories there.

  5. RGupnorth August 8, 2017 at 6:54 pm #

    The shelters are pretty decent to stay in, but no matter how careful you are – it seems those screen doors have a slap when you go in/out at night.

    • Becky August 9, 2017 at 12:47 pm #

      Part of our orientation on campground etiquette involved the controlled closing of shelter and outhouse doors to avoid noise pollution. 🙂

  6. Debra August 9, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    Glad you made it through your first backpack. I’ve been backpacking over 30 years. It is still hard when there is much elevation gain. But getting to a beautiful destination and waking up the next morning to enjoy a cup of coffe and watch the sun rise over the mountain makes it all worth it! For a 7 day trip my pack would be about 42 lbs with food and water. This is still heavy for me to carry but at least it lightens each day. My food weighs roughly 1.5 lbs per day. This means no canned food, lol! I used to dehydrate some food for my lunches and carry freeze dried for dinners. Breakfast was oatmeal and a Cliff Builders Protein bar. This gives me 20g of protein. It can be difficult to get enough protein when backpacking, especially in the morning when your body needs it. I don’t dehydrate meals anymore now that I live in my TT. For those who dehydrate there is a recipe book named Fork In The Trail that has some awesome lunch recipes that don’t require heating. Lunch was the most difficult as I just got sick of trail mix and jerky! Also be sure to drink some type of electrolyte replacement. I use Emergency-C. But there are probably other options that are better.

    If you decide to continue backpacking and purchase your own gear you will be amazed at the difference a properly sized pack makes. Also, as others have said invest in the lightest weight gear that you can. One of the rules of backpacking is to pack items that have multiple uses. And you have to be ruthless with cutting out the things you don’t really need. Every ounce counts.

    Good luck with your next trip!

    • Becky August 9, 2017 at 1:17 pm #

      Thanks for sharing Debra. I definitely learned a lot on this maiden trip and will be much better prepared next time. Lightening the load was a big motivator for eating 3 square meals a day on this trip, haha.

      I’m not much of a morning person, so for me the best part of the day was the evening watching the sun go down once chores were done.

  7. Rene Kipp August 9, 2017 at 2:00 pm #

    Your story reminds me of my week long backpack trip to the John Muir Wilderness. Our trip was slightly different though because we set up a base camp and stayed there for a couple of nights before moving onto another base camp. We would take day hikes from base camp. We did have to limit our food though and bring bear proof caches. I learned quite a bit on that journey 🙂 I was part of a group of about 10 people, mostly girl scout leaders. Great times! I’m looking forward to hearing about the next part of the journey.
    Rene Kipp recently posted..Day TrippingMy Profile

    • Becky August 12, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

      It was real nice not having to worry about bears on this trip Rene.

      Someday I’ll go hiking in the John Muir wilderness, I’ve touched the edge of it before out west and it looks so darn pretty. Glad you had a good time!

  8. Brian S. August 10, 2017 at 8:43 am #

    What a great adventure, I’m looking forward to the rest of the story.
    My pack weight ranges from 35 to 40 pounds. A lot of the ultra light gear is too fragile for my use. My sleeping pad (a Thermarest Neo-Air) and down sleeping bag have helped me lighten my load.
    Have you tried using hiking poles? I use them (even on flat terrain) when I’m carrying a heavy pack. Keeping my arms moving helps to cut down on the soreness from the shoulder straps.
    Most of the time I prefer going on day hikes and returning to the comforts of the RV in the evening:)

    • Becky August 12, 2017 at 12:41 pm #

      I’ve never felt a need for them day hiking, but if I get into backpacking more I’ll probably look into it closer Brian.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying this travelogue, thanks for reading!

  9. Dawn in MI August 11, 2017 at 7:23 pm #

    What an adventure! I can’t wait to read the next installment. I feel like a wimp that I never went out there during the 6 years I lived in the Keweenaw. But I also see now that there was no way I would have been prepared or in shape for something like this. I’m glad it gets better for you after day 3. I have absolutely no advice what-so-ever. Just glad you survived!

    • Becky August 12, 2017 at 12:43 pm #

      I’m glad too Dawn, haha! I knew it was going to be tough, but knowing is different that actually experiencing it.

      If you do decide to visit someday, you could just do a day trip, or do a couple days in one of the harbor campgrounds and do a day hike without the heavy pack. The place is definitely worth a visit.

      • Dawn in MI August 12, 2017 at 3:14 pm #

        You’re right Becky, I should visit it and do day hikes. Thanks for that idea.

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