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I'll choose Isle Royale again

Photo by S.E. Livingston

I chose the vacation this year. Contrary to everything my family knows about me, I chose a backpacking trip to Isle Royale.

I've been hearing about Isle Royale since I was young. I watched Boy Scouts and boy campers training and preparing for their coming-of-age Isle Royale trip. As a young girl, it seemed to be the magical journey where boys became men and returned home with tales of beauty and strength.

Isle Royale is the "eye" of the wolf, the shape of our Lake Superior. The island is Michigan territory even though it's closer to Minnesota and closest to Canada. Fishing villages and mining communities used to populate it, but now it is a national park occupied by backpackers, boaters and one lodge. From Duluth, the best way to get there is to take a ferry from Grand Portage.

Our adventure didn't start with the 1 1/2 hour-long ferry ride to the island, though. The adventure started three months earlier when we took progressively longer hikes with heavier weights. We even took a practice weekend on the Superior Hiking Trail, where we discovered that mosquitoes can turn recreation into torture.

When vacation day arrived, we ferried to the southern corner of the island at the Windigo station. Immediately the day trippers separated from the backpackers. The day trippers were given a happy little welcome and directed to the nature center, tourist shop and bathrooms with indoor plumbing. The backpackers were cornered by the park ranger and given a speech and then a quiz about survival, leaving no trace and staying away from the wolves.

With those sobering words, our hike began on the southern corner of the island. The first stop three miles in was at a beautiful inland vista. This was the daytrippers' destination, too. As we topped a hill with about 20 day hikers, I felt ridiculous wearing my stupendous purple backpack and my unfamiliar center of gravity. All the day hikers looked fresh and wore cute little backpacks and camelbacks.

As we jiggled into our backpacks one of the cute daytrippers stopped us. "Your family looks fit," she said. "I'm pretty jealous and wish we could do that, too."

That's right, we were the ones having an adventure. This was fun. I needed that reminder.

The pack I was wearing held 35 pounds of food, sleeping pads and bags and personal belongings. Annie carried 20 pounds of food and tent. Dan, at 16, carried 45 pounds and my husband carried 50 pounds.

The first two days of hiking were a little like childbirth. It was all sorts of pain in previously pain-free areas which seemed to go on and on. I started to block out my surroundings and focus on my inner voice telling me to step, step, step. Because at some point it didn't matter how beautiful nature was. I wanted to stop walking. I wanted to stop staring at my feet, worried about tripping on a root. I wanted to stop carrying that ridiculous backpack. But if I stopped I would be assaulted by a squadron of mosquitoes.

Every mile or so we took off the packs, got a drink and commiserated or encouraged. In our practice hikes we learned that stopping every mile to rest actually made the trip shorter than if we just soldiered on.

When we finally walked into beautiful Siskiwit Bay at the end of a very long day two, I was thoroughly exhausted. But a dip in the restorative waters of Lake Superior renewed my hope that I might be able to squirm into that pack another day.

An Isle Royale backpacking vacation was completely worth the pain. I do have vivid memories of terrorist mosquitoes, sweat-soaked clothes and the strain of that backpack. These harrowing details make the others memories all the sweeter.

I haven't time to mention the surprise visit by a Voyageur reenactment team in an authentic long boat, the afternoons in the hammock watching the clouds and waves, the daily swim in an uncharacteristically warm Lake Superior and, even more, the time spent with my family journeying, achieving and then relaxing.

I'm so glad we didn't choose the day trip.

S.E. Livingston

Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota and lives in Duluth.