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Mask up! A Covid Summer on the Island

Posted on March 31st, 2021

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Isle Royale, the only national park that officially closes during the winter, will open for the season on April 15. In the middle of this pandemic summer, backpackers, paddlers and boaters will be in the backcountry looking for a Covid escape. Will they find it? In his latest Trail Talk blog for MichiganTrailMaps.com, Jim DuFresne is not so sure that you can, even on wilderness island in the middle of Lake Superior.

A new edition of DuFresne’s classic, Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes, was released last year and is now full color with greatly improved maps. You can order it now from the MichiganTrailMaps.com eshop and start planning that trip. Don’t forget the mask.

By Jim DuFresne

Pandemic or not, Isle Royale National Park will open this year. Technically it was last year, but this summer, you’ll be able to get there. The ferries will be running.

This will set up another unusual season for the Lake Superior park. Or, as the National Park Service says on its website; Wilderness Is Not Immune to COVID-19. Among the things park officials are urging visitors to do:

  • Be self-sufficient. Few services are available.
  • Wear a face mask anywhere where social distancing isn’t possible, including docks, campgrounds, and passing along trails.
  • And most important: Bring toilet paper. Outhouses will not be stocked.

Jim DuFresne

The strangest aspect of the season will center on the Island’s beloved backcountry shelters. There are 88 of the three-side structures in the park, located exclusively in campgrounds along Lake Superior and shared by backpackers, paddlers and boaters.

After a long 10-mile day on the trail, much of it in a drizzly rain, you arrive at the Siskiwit Bay Campground and one of the two shelters is available.

Going to grab it?

You don’t know who used it last or when. Could have been a group of six crammed in there. None of them wearing a mask around the campground. Maybe a boater who just arrived the day before from Wisconsin.

What you do know is a negative Covid test isn’t required to visit the park. And that hut hasn’t been disinfected all summer. There isn’t enough hand sanitizer in your backpack to wipe down the door or picnic table much less the interior where everybody sleeps on the floor.

A shelter at Daisy Farm Campground.

I suspect those who arrive at the Island vaccinated will shrug and grab it. Those who haven’t or the backpackers who whip out a mask when they see somebody coming down the trail, will pass it up and pitch their tent. As cramped as the tent might be, it’s still a much safer alternative.

As you close in on Duncan Harbor Campground after a long day paddling through the Five Fingers area of the park, you hoping to snag one of its two shelters. But when you arrive they’re both taken by boaters. The adults are spending the night making margaritas on their vessels but their kids are having a “camp out” in the shelters.  You’d like to complain to a park ranger, but there isn’t one for miles around.

We’ve always had this love-hate relationship with those shelters. And there have always been user conflicts with them.

It’s raining hard when you arrive at McCargoe Cove and it doesn’t appear it’s going to let up. There are six shelters in this campground but all are taken and no one is willing to share.

I always thought that in stormy weather the shelters become public space, open to all who want the protection they offer. So did Michael Banks, but he has discovered that’s rarely the case.

“First-come-first-to-unroll-their-sleeping-bags basis seems to conflict with what the park’s rangers have been telling me since 1972,” Banks wrote to me in an email. “The shelters are supposed to be shared when things get tight. But I remember two people barring four of us from sharing their shelter during a very violent September windstorm.”

One of six shelters at Moskey Basin campground.

There has been times when four of us arrive and the last group has hauled the picnic table inside the shelter. They’re a beast to carry back out. Even with four of us.

Other times I’ve seen people pitch their free-standing dome inside a shelter and I know why. They can get very cold in the fall. That begs the question; why use a shelter then?

On Isle Royale Forums one person summed up shelter use this way:

“We saw no picnic tables inside shelters. It seems like a bad idea to me. The current wording is that in inclement weather you are encouraged to share your shelter. Having seen a 40-hour rain, I’d like to see it say shall share your shelter. The shelters are designed for as many as six campers. The table takes up the room of four. In no event should they be left inside the shelter.

Another added:

“I take the shelter if it’s available. There’s nothing like being able to spread out all your gear and still have room to move around. This is particularly nice if you’ve been hiking in rain for several hours. The shelter graffiti is also VERY entertaining.”

This is going to be an interesting summer on Isle Royale. I just hope there’s shelter available when I get to camp. I’ve been vaccinated.

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