Thursday, December 6, 2018

Backpacking Rock Island State Park: Day 1

Rock Island is the crown jewel of Wisconsin's state park system. 

It's also the most remote, hardest to access, and desolate. Gray skies and cold rain couldn't dampen the smile I had hopping off the second ferry at Rock Island State Park, the 40th state park I've traveled to. When I sat down last October and mapped out 2018's trips for it, I knew Rock Island would require the most planning. You have to do your homework prior to backpacking here. Where will you get water? How much food to bring? Are you ready for when the weather conditions will drastically change in a swift beat? Have you looked at the ferry times? To reach Rock Island, you have to catch two ferries; the first departs hourly from Washington Island and then the second smaller passenger-only boat, the Karfi. The window for accessing the island by water is only from about the end of May until the last weekend in October. Stay tuned for more of a how-to access Rock Island State Park blog post here soon. I'm beyond grateful I was able to explore this new park and backpack here for three days because it truly is a surreal wilderness experience like none other in Wisconsin.

When rocking back-and-forth on the tiny Karfi ferry burbling its way from Washington Island to Rock Island State Park, this old magnificent, ornate cobblestone structure appears as you float closer to the dock. The history behind the early roots of this island is chock full of rich Scandinavian heritage. In the late 1800s, Chester Hjortur Thordarson immigrated to the United States from Iceland and found his fortune after inventing and patenting several electrical components we still use to this today. Thordarson, intrigued by the allure of the island, purchased in 1910 some 661 acres of it for a mere $5,735 and began building an escape for himself, families and friends. In essence there was almost an entire Icelandic colony that became established here on Rock Island, before the Wisconsin DNR took control fifty-five years later.

This grand building seen here in these three shots was Thordarson's boathouse and great room which housed his own personal library and work space. I cannot help but dream of retreating to here in the cold, snowy dead of winter, and spending hours at one of those burnt wood tables writing away in my book. Yep, that needs to happen. Sitting and researching as much as I could about Rock Island State Parks vast history drew more appreciation for how some of our state parks are key cornerstones in the making of Wisconsin. Fascinating travels to Tower Hill State Park and Copper Culture State Park for example. We can admire and awe at the natural landscapes each of these park properties show off, but we also must dedicate time and gratitude for the lessons in history these public lands can teach us. 

It began to rain hard but thankfully I entered this hall of welcoming trees, whose gracious branches shielded me from the downpour. The 1.5- approach hike to the backcountry site was damp, windy, and took me further into the island's dense interior. My watch beeped for 4pm, and I looked down, realizing I had maybe about two hours left until dusk.Crisp, lush shelves of leaves bigger than my soaking wet hands collect rain that then slide down onto the forest floor. I tuned in my ears while hiking to my backcountry site, hearing the sounds of the water drops lightly spritzing against my jacket and an elongated "wooooooooossshhhhh" booming as the wind pushes through the canopy of trees above. A moment like this goes to show that even if conditions aren't the most ideal, you should still tread lightly and slow, reaping in all of this exposure to nature's gifts.

A brief window in Friday afternoon's forecast of showers gave way to the start of a dreamy golden hour, its piercing sun shining through just above the tree line. Everything glowed, including the neon green rainfly hugging my Gregory Baltoro 65 backpacking pack. I seriously treasure golden hour when I'm in the outdoors, it doesn't last long, but what it does do is serve as a gentle reminder a day of adventuring is gracefully concluding. Blocky columns of flat smooth slickrock jut out into the rolling waters of Lake Michigan up and down miles of shoreline at Rock Island. They're platforms extending towards the theatrical, dark blue evening skies. Next time I visit this state park, I have to access it by kayak from Washington Island, because what's pictured here is a perfectly executed dock, carved away by the magic of erosion, right near my campsite that I could paddle to. 

I reflected on gratitude while pitching my tent along the grassy secluded ledge of this cliff near the lake. I've always know about a strong intuition inside me urging me to head north and visit Rock Island, a state park off the tip of Wisconsin by itself. Right there, I slowly shook my head and relaxed my jaw, in disbelief at just how heavenly this all felt. The rain subsided and daylight began to fall as I finished cooking dinner over the stove, waiting for this backpacking adventure's opening sunset to arrive.

I've recently read a few articles about the digital ethics when it comes to practicing LNT or Leave No Trace, and a key focus point how the over-use of geotagging in photos on social media inadvertently causes protected parts of public lands to be overwhelmed and damages. I see the validity in this, and therefore won't be sharing where this exact location in the park is, because that's a special spot for me I now cherish. I hope you understand the value behind this decision, and perhaps start practicing this mindful choice too.

There's this beautiful song by one of my favorite artists, Patrick O'Hearn called "Night Becomes Her," that was playing on loop in my head as I stood and watched the sunset draw to a close on my first day spent backpacking Rock Island. I was straight captivated by this scene being painted right in front of my frozen gaze. The moving clouds, tumultuous current becoming more hostile against the slabs of stone inches from my hiking boots, the daylight diminishing and lowering the air temperature with it. Add this one to the book of sunsets in the wild I'll never forget.