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Running on the Island

Posted on September 28th, 2017

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Summer has come to a close and Jim DuFresne, the main blogger at MichiganTrailMaps.com, has some thoughts before we move into that short but sweet hiking season known as Fall in Michigan. Get out there because before you know it, winter will be here.

For tips and suggestions on where to go in October check out books and commercial maps in the MichiganTrailMaps.com eshop, especially one of our bestsellers, 50 Hikes in Michigan, which actually describes 60 hikes all in the Lower Peninsula.

By Jim DuFresne

Thoughts from the trail at the end of a season:

Jim DuFresne

The first time I encountered a trail runner on Isle Royale National Park was in 2009. I was on the Greenstone Ridge Trail, lugging a week’s worth of equipment and food in what I always considered to be a wilderness, when I heard something moving in the forest ahead of me. For a split second I thought it was a small moose when from around the bend popped out a lanky gentleman wearing little more than runner’s shorts, ankle socks and a polyester t-shirt.

I was so stunned at the sight of him, I just stood there on the trail. When the runner reached me he was forced to stop, resulting in a snarky “exccuuse me” from him. I immediately hopped off the narrow path – at Isle Royale the slow are always expected to move out of the way for the speedy – and watched him briefly as he resumed his run to – no doubt – his lodge room at Rock Harbor with its soft bed and hot shower.

I immediately resented the encounter. Here I was, shouldering almost 40 pounds, eating mac-and-cheese and Cup-a-Soup every night, sleeping in a narrow solo tent, forgoing the luxuries of life like a cold beer at happy hour, thinking these were the sacrifices you make to experience this great wilderness island. When out of nowhere comes this guy with a fanny pack that had two bottles of water on the outside and, from the looks of it after he passed me, not much more inside than a light Gore-Tex jacket and a protein bar.

I found it demeaning.

Backpacker headed to Feldtmann Lake on Isle Royale for the night.

Since then I have learned that trail running is a relatively new activity at the park. That people utilize the same drop-off services as backpackers to run back to Rock Harbor from places like Lookout Louise, McCargoe Cove or Moskey Basin. I was told that there have been rangers and trail crew workers who celebrate the end of their summer on the island by running the 40-plus miles from Windigo to Rock Harbor.

And it takes the air out of the adventure of everybody else those runners pass on the trail.

I realize that people who live out west or in Alaska snicker when we call Isle Royale a wilderness. Sure there are no roads or cars on the island but it’s still hard to hang that label on a place only 210 square miles in size with lakeshore campgrounds featuring three-side shelters and large docks where power boaters anchor nightly before turning up the music or tapping a keg.

This is a place anchored by a lodge and a restaurant serving freshly-caught white fish at one end, rustic accommodations and a store at the other and in between features 160 miles of trails, the vast majority well marked at every junction by sign posts with mileage.

Still the park boosts one of the longest visitation averages of any national park in the country. At Yellowstone the visit average is a few hours, at Isle Royale it’s 4.5 days. We don’t go there to sightsee, but to escape into what we perceive to be a wilderness.

Then that runner comes bouncing down the trail with little more than a bottle of water and a granola bar.

What we have here is a trail users conflict, like cross-country skiers and snowmobilers or mountain bikers and equestrians. Don’t get me wrong. People have a right to run on trails, I run on trails.

Jim DuFresne is the author of Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes.

But there are a few places in Michigan – not many – that have become a mecca for backcountry hikers and paddlers. Because they have the acreage, the lakes, the rugged terrain or the trail system that allows you to travel for days at a time, mountain bikes are banned, portage carts are outlawed and small outboard motors are forbidden even if you were willing to carry them across a portage.

Isle Royale is obviously one of these places, maybe Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and Sylvania Wilderness are others. None of them are big, still it would be nice to go there and for a few days feel like you’ve escaped to a place that’s pristine and pure and as far away from your routines at home as possible.

Even if it’s just a short-lived perception.

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