The Fun Scale on Misty Island

Ever heard of type two fun? It’s the kind of adventure that you look back on and laugh, and every time you tell the story it gets better and better. Overtime, the story may become a fond memory. Some might call it a misadventure. Type two fun is the kind of adventure where you suffer.

Our suffering began as soon as we left our home state of Colorado. At a gas station in Nebraska, we opened the door and over 100 flies flew in. The more doors I opened to shoo them out, the more flew in behind me. We drove over 1,000 miles to Lake Superior in Minnesota with flies landing on our noses, hands, and legs. We slept with flies buzzing in our ears and no matter how many we shooed out, there were always more.

Somewhere between the Missouri river and the border of Canada, I lost a shoe.

When we crossed into Minnesota, we crossed into a cloud. It rained 1.5 inches in a few hours, which is more rain than we see in a month in the desert. It rained every day for a week. There’s nothing inherently sufferable about rain, but it made living in a van in an unfamiliar place uncomfortable.

Our van, Trish the Tank, is a fair weathered friend. She thrives on a warm summer day with her doors open, her kitchen out the back, with enough room for all our of belongings to be spread out on a nice patch of dry dirt. Instead we shoved our musty shoes under the bed and hung our wet pants and dripping jackets to the best of our ability away from the mattress.

That’s how we found ourselves sitting on the floor of a visitor’s center next to the bathroom, checking our phones for the first time in three days.

I had two voicemails and two emails from the kind folk who run the ferry back and forth between Grand Portage and Isle Royale National Park. We had planned a two week bike trip that required us to take two ferries, one from Minnesota to the island, and one from the island to Michigan. The ferries were canceled and the island was closed, or so we thought.

My voicemail clarified one thing: one ferry was open, it was an out and back to the island, and we were free to do either an overnight trip or a three week trip. Unprepared for three weeks on a remote island with no roads, food, or services, we chose the overnight option. We had a little over 12 hours to prepare.

We were up for the challenge of packing a backpack inside of a van while it poured outside. We took turns packing, with our bodies crammed in between the doors and the bed. Trish isn’t the kind of van you can stand up in, it’s a crouching only space with a crawlspace underneath the bed that only I can fit under.

After sleeping soundly, we drove to the ferry dock three hours early. We had eggs, potatoes, and coffee to make and I still needed to pack my breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinner. We pulled into the parking lot and to our horror, it was packed full of people getting out of their cars, hoisting their backpacks out of their trunks and forming a line at the dock.

Turns out we weren’t three hours early, we were 15 minutes late and it wasn’t even 7:00 am yet. Ian was still laying in bed. We exploded out of the car, shoving random odds and ends into our backpacks. Hastily, I filled up my water bottles, made coffee to go, lost the van keys, shooed 15 flies out of the van, found my hairbrush, 5 flies flew back in, tossed in some cliff bars, found my keys, locked the van and walked toward the dock.

There were at least 30 people standing there without their packs, already loaded onto the boat. Though there was a crowd, it was dead silent. Even the lake was barely awake with the waves not yet lapping against the shore.

An old woman with grey curly hair turned toward me as I approached the dock. She was the only one who walked up to me, as most people had their backs turned toward us looking out at the water. I thought she might help me, tell me where to go, how to check in, and give me the lowdown of what to do. Instead she came inches from my face and said, “You’re late. Everyone has been waiting for you.”

I cringed and laughed nervously. The men from the boat shouted at us, “Bring your backpacks over here!” We hurriedly passed our packs up to the man who was standing on top of the boat. I looked down and realized that I was the only one wearing pajamas, and everyone around me was wearing head to toe rain gear. I needed my rain jacket out of my backpack, which was now on top of the boat.

A younger version of myself might have felt embarrassed to ask. She might have avoided making any sort of request, quietly gotten on the boat and suffered the consequence of trying to be nice. The version of myself that I am today tried to climb the boat and get it myself. The boatman ignored me when I asked him to get it, so I waited until we were the last ones on the boat. Begrudgingly, he climbed up and handed me my rain jacket.

I wanted to ask, “Do we win the award for most annoying passengers yet?” to lighten the mood. But there was still that nice girl engrained in me that didn’t want to bother him anymore.

Now that the late passengers had arrived, the boatmen shared their spiel which did not include any safety precautions, no life jackets on board, vomit off the back of the boat, now get on the boat. We ventured onto the oceanic Lake Superior three hours earlier than expected.

Ian and I sat outside on the front of the boat to watch the waves roll past us. This was the definition of type one fun. We had warm coffee in our cup, a blanket on our laps, the water was mesmerizing, it was quiet and peaceful. We both had big smiles on our faces because type one fun is enjoying the moment in the moment, without great effort or great growth.

We met an old man who was celebrating his 30th visit to Isle Royale. He told us that he had been visiting the island for fifteen years. In that time, he had hiked every marked trail on the misty island. He was now working on bushwhacking the length of the island, which is over 40 miles long. Last time he was here bushwhacking away, he couldn’t figure out how to get up on a ridge. He tried for four days, and this time he was back to give that ridge another go.

“I think the world needs more empathy,” he said when I asked him what he thinks the world needs more of. “What can I do other than help my neighbors, pick up trash and be kind? The government won’t help you, so you have to be able to count on your neighbors.” 

“It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes because it’s uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely necessary,” he said. His definition of empathy extended beyond humans and into the natural world. He wanted people to practice empathy for earth itself, and he believed that the only way to do that was to go deep into the forest and live in it. In the last 15 years, he came to the island in 13-17 day stints and had collectively spent over 450 days there.

“I’m not passionate about backpacking,” he said, laughing. “I’m passionate about earth! Backpacking is just a vessel to see earth.” 

After an hour, the tip of the island appeared through the mist and the old man disappeared into the boat. We arrived at Windigo by 9:00 am, the southern tip of the island. Lake Superior was placid and silent. The glassy waters were barely moving and the wind was absent. Even the rangers remarked on how calm the waters were. For the last three days they experienced high winds, waves, rain, and trees falling. All was quiet on the island that morning.

What’s special about Isle Royale National Park is that it’s truly devoted to a wilderness experience. There are no roads on the island, only trails. Every single person that got off the boat was handed their backpack and a backpacking permit. 99% of the island is designated as a wilderness study area. 

We stood in a line to get a permit, which was just a volunteer ranger writing on a piece of paper where we were going.

“If the campground is busy just ask someone to share their site. Most people will say yes,” the ranger informed us. We took the permit, and immediately walked in a different direction than planned. Instead of doing a four mile trip to a campsite overlooking the lake with a four mile loop back, we chose to do the hardest and the longest trail: eight and half miles one way through the forest to a lake on an island that’s in the middle of a lake.

It was here that our suffering began because of our egos. We couldn’t resist proving to absolutely no one but ourselves that we could do the longest and hardest trail on the list.

“Of course we can hike 8 miles in one day.”

“Of course we can wake up early tomorrow, hike another 8 miles, and be back at the dock by…wait…when does the boat come?”

“Around 1:00 or 1:30pm,” the ranger said.

“Easy. Piece of cake. We’ll just wake up at 5:00 am and hike 8 miles back to the dock by 1:00pm.”

This was our well thought out plan. The trail started out magical. For the first half mile, we walked a few feet away from the edge of Superior, it’s majesty of blue blanketing the horizon. It was unclear where the lake ended and the sky began. We walked under a canopy of green, then hiked up and into the mist and never saw the lake again.

We hiked through dense forest, and marveled at how the old man could possibly enjoy bushwhacking through this island. The trail was about 12 inches wide, and the second you stepped off the path your foot sank in water. You couldn’t see more than 5 feet into the forest in places. The undergrowth of plants grew up to my chest.

It was a warm hike. Humid, sticky and misty until it began to rain. When it rains on Misty Island, the whole forest rains, even the ground plants rain. First the sky dripped, then the tree branches dripped, then the ground plants dripped. From shoulders down, I was soaked from the plants.

The trail turned into a river and we just walked through it because type two fun is about choice. It’s not really all about suffering, it’s about enjoying suffering.

At first I tried to dodge the puddles, leaping from rock to root and inevitably a toe would fall in and I could choose to feel frustrated and curse the puddle. Over time if I kept up the prancing over water, I’d fall long behind Ian, who has mastered the art of not caring about wet feet. When he was sixteen he took a NOLS course in Alaska and his instructor made them start out the morning by standing in the freezing cold water to get used to wet boots. Mind over matter, he never broke his stride. He’d tromp through water’s up to his shins with his pants soaked and keep moving, so I followed his lead and did the same. Avoiding water is self inflicted suffering.

The type two fun story could be made to sound grand and epic, and in the moment we mostly just spent hours quietly walking and coping. It was a long eight miles but it wasn’t a terrible eight miles.

0.4 miles away from the lake, we knocked some sense into ourselves.

“This is a pretty long hike,” I said.

“I’m beginning to think we might not make it back to the ferry in time,” Ian said.

In my hurried packing that morning, I packed five jackets and hardly enough food to make it through the 27 hours. Though it sounded like a blast to be stranded on a remote beautiful island, we could not realistically miss that boat.

“What will happen if we miss the boat?” I asked.

“Let’s not find out,” Ian said.

We never made it to the small lake on the island on the gigantic ocean lake. We never even saw it through the trees. We turned around and retraced our steps for four miles, bringing our total to twelve miles instead of our chosen eight miles and instead of that easy four mile trip that was written on our permit.

We bought a brand new tent for this trip, for the rain and the bugs. When it was delivered in the mail, we didn’t even open it. We just packed it and opened it for the first time on the trail. I had a feeling that we should open it before we needed it, but I am lazy and didn’t care. I figured we would just figure it out.

When we opened the tent in the drippy forest, we discovered that this tent was designed to be set up with two trekking poles. Guess how many trekking poles we had.

Zero. We had zero trekking poles. The tent was not free standing and didn’t come with tent poles.

“We have to hike back to the pavilion,” Ian said, which was another four miles back at the dock, which would bring our total of the day to sixteen miles.

“I do not want to do that,” I said, grumpy and tired and hungry and wet.

The beautiful thing about the wilderness is that it tests you. It pushes you into exhaustion and discomfort and presents you with choices. Hike four more miles or get creative. I chose the creativity option. With extra p-cord, we attached a makeshift top line to two trees, staked in the corners and boom! we had a tent.

“This is so weird,” I said, inspecting the tent and finding no floor. “I remember specifically talking about the benefits of having a floor to the tent.”

“Oh, uh…I remember the opposite conversation,” Ian said.

I laughed, because he was the one that ordered the tent. 

“Well then, that’s how that happened,” I said, continuing to stake the corners into the ground. We would sleep on the soggy ground and that was just fine.

With the promise of a warm sleeping bag and dry shelter, I went to work on cooking noodles. Cheese and spinach ravioli- a delicious reward to a long day.

“Dinner’s ready!” I said cheerfully, then immediately spilled the entire dish into the dirt. Sometimes the days fly by and other times you get to notice every second. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. What else was there to do but pick up every noodle one by one, brush off the dirt, and eat it? We were hungry.

Relieved that our plan was not to wake up at 5:00 am and hike eight miles back to the dock, we went to sleep in a swamp of trickling and dripping water.

Bolts of lightning illuminated the sky and thunder rumbled in my chest. I peeled my eyes open to see Ian’s wet hair and blue eyes poking out of his sleeping bag.

“What time is it?” I mumbled, half asleep.

“5:00 am,” he said, checking his watch.

I waited for disaster, but it never came. The tent held up aside from the occasional condensation drops landing on my forehead. The ground never flooded and we never went back to sleep.

We started the second day with empty water bottles, because we used the two water bottles that we filled up before bed to make noodles and coffee. We hiked until we found a creek, running red from tannin, dirt and rain water runoff.

Our water filter broke. We didn’t bring any back up system for water purification.

Ian slipped on a log and fell into the creek. He giggled, got out of the water and immediately found two moose antlers. He held them up to his head and said, “Can you imagine these growing from your head?”

I decided to drink no water for four miles and Ian decided to drink straight from the creek without the filter.

We chose trust. Ian trusted that there wasn’t human feces in the water and that he wouldn’t get a parasite, and I trusted that I was capable of hiking for two hours feeling thirsty. We trusted that we would make it back to the dock, drink water, eat food, rest, and go back to the van safely. Most of all we trusted that if anything else went awry, we would do what it takes to make it through.

Usually type two fun puts you somewhere in your challenge zone and when you make it through a day of discomfort, you grow.

We hiked the last four miles back to the dock in a cloud and couldn’t see Superior through the mist. The forest was raining, but the sky was not. When we arrived at the dock, it was calm, warm, and dry. A sea of backpackers were in the pavilion playing cards, making coffee, smoking cigarettes, and reading books. Everyone was talking about the storm.

It seemed that everyone on the island enjoyed varying degrees of suffering through the storm. While waiting for the ferry, I saw people give hugs, exchange phone numbers, and promise to call each other. I watched two women give the rest of their cliff bars and popcorn to backpackers who just got off the boat, ready to start their adventure.

I heard one woman say, “That was quite the overnighter.” Her friend laughed and responded, “Yeah, it was two nights!” They giggled and wrung out their socks over the water.

We all climbed aboard the ferry with our wet clothes and wet packs and waved goodbye to the park ranger standing on the dock in front a misty island.


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4 Comments on “The Fun Scale on Misty Island

  1. Great article Beth! Alaska leaves no one a stranger to wet feet. Neoprene socks tend to help. Or so I’ve heard…

    I love following your adventures/posts. Hope to cross paths one day. Hollar if you’re ever in South-central Alaska.

    Cheers,

    Emily Mailman (she/her) Indiana University 2020 | Environmental Management Major Lab Technician | Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute http://www.linkedin.com/in/emily-mailman http://www.linkedin.com/in/emily-mailman

    >

    Like

    • Thanks for reading and for writing back to me! Knowing that someone’s following along is very special to me.

      My mom recently gave us both neoprene socks and we’ve yet to try out the magic. You’ll be the first to know when we’re heading up to Alaska!

      Like

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