Saturday, December 8, 2018

Backpacking Rock Island State Park: Seeking that northern solitude

Waking up on an early Saturday morning to blue skies, an eerily calm lake, and pristine fall weather. 

My beloved Eureka Taron2 backpacking tent stakes its claim at what I'm confident is the most incredible, jaw-dropping primitive wilderness site to call home in the entire state. Remind me next time to bring coffee because oh that would have made this moment even more glorious. After breakfast and a bit of journaling and reading, I studied my crinkled paper map and planned out 8 miles of hiking to fully experience the wonders of this new-to-me state park. I'm aching already, months later in early December, desperate to get back to these exact coordinates. 
I scrambled down a steep ledge, grabbing onto trusty cedar cedar branches that acted as railings in an effort to keep a steady footing, and reached the bottom shoreline on the island's quiet east side shoreline. I was alone and had the entire place to myself to explore. The vast feelings of being so remote are moving. My heart continued to beat stronger as my deep admiration for this state park elevated.
Through a tunnel of skinny birch, I continued hiking around the northern perimeter of the island. What's pictured here is a stone water tower built just minutes away from where an old fishing settlement use to be. The feeling of truly being in the wilderness here is evident in every direction I look and in every rampant bird call I hear echoing from the tree tops including the bashing clunks of some pileated woodpecker searching for lunch.
This park is like a symphony hall for winged residents. I used to volunteer for a couple years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at a National Wildlife Refuge, where I got my fair share of education on all-things ornithology. But this place, these woods, cued bizarre sounds I've never heard before or even thought existed. It was at that moment on the trail I realized I need to bring a pair of binoculars and invest in a pocket bird ID book to throw in my daypack as I play detective.
Pottawatomie's beaming light was a beacon of hope for seafarers that sailed through this unpredictable, rough passage around the far northern tip of Door County. Rock Island's stone lighthouse was first built in 1836 and became Wisconsin's first lighthouse. Pottawatomie was kept operational in good-hands by full-time keepers who lived there on the island during the mid-1800s to early-1900s until the U.S. Coast Guard automated it in 1944. But eventually the glow was darkened, when a new steel structure was built nearby (out of shot). 
Today, you can tour this gem of Wisconsin maritime history and climb its narrow stairs to the top lens. Prior to arriving at Rock Island State Park to backpack, I had never inside a lighthouse, so this was definitely a treat and experience I'm grateful for, especially because I love our Great Lakes' history. Standing some 159 ft above Lake Michigan, I imagined being here in a past time, when Door County's violent storms made it near impossible for vessels to find their way. We owe a lot to old Pottawatomie.
Safeguarding eyes once kept watch for ships in distress navigating through the Rock Island Passage, a watery maze of shallow shoals and blind islands. Standing by this thin glass, I squinted through to spot Michigan's uninhabited St. Martin island in the distance. I could hear faint, high-pitched gusts of wind blowing into the side of the lighthouse against this window as I watched the cedars below dance along.
The blue sky began to fade away and lower temperatures cascading over the island meant the time has now come for its residents to burrow away and find a warm home for darker months. Everything in nature slows down, too. A toad blanketing himself in insulating pine needles ready to slow his heartbeat down to an almost stop, fans of fungi showing its pumpkiny colors before the frost.
These two pictures were taken on the mile-long interpretive Algonquin Nature Trail, which while tricky to navigate at times due to overgrowth, is a hike rich in fascination and learning. As fall continues to bloom, how do you slow down?
Thank you, oh great hemlock for your towering inspiring presence as I walk through your woods. I was humbled to see such a grand tree like this hemlock, which are becoming more and more rare these days. I'm glad I broke trail to find this tsuga canadensis. Standing below swooping branches of blunt needles, staring upwards, I felt such strong energy from this arbor masterpiece. True fact, hemlocks on average grow up to 102 ft tall!
The element that continued to impress, move, and surprise me the most about Rock Island was its dense sprawling forests located in the center of the island. It was so surreal to tread lightly through these woods. The shot here was capture on the 1.5-mile long Fernwood Trail, which instantly became my favorite hike in the park. There's so much mystery here, among these trees, as my mind kept diving deeper and deeper into the curiosity realm, wandering and wondering what's really out there.
With the second day coming to a close, my commute back to the tent after around eight miles of hiking was quite scenic with vertical views like this. A few precarious steps from the edge of a treacherous drop. Remind me next time to stuff a hammock in my backpacking pack, because gosh there are prime spots littered across the island for some slow swaying.

Cheers,
Robby

Visit Rock Island State Park's website.
Click here for a map of Rock Island State Park.
See ferry times and prices here.

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