Return to Isle Royale
By Dan Gjelten
In 2022, retired University of St. Thomas Library Director Dan Gjelten, and his brother, retired National Public Radio correspondent Tom Gjelten, recreated their 1963 childhood hiking trip on Isle Royale National Park. Many thanks to Dan for sharing his reflections on both journeys—and the enduring value of time spent in this special place.
My father was a guy who, even late in life, woke up in the morning asking, “what are we going to do today?” His need for activity led to a love of travel and camping for weeks every summer such that in the winter, he would sometimes go to the basement to sit on our big canvas tent just to take in the aromas of canvas, pine, summer and woodsmoke that it contained.
Our family camped all over the country, mom patiently accommodating dad’s wanderlust, and both of them putting up with four kids who were more or less interested in long hours of travel in the Dodge wagon with a rooftop carrier and the back loaded with gear. I often climbed back there to ride on top of that stuff just to get away from my siblings.
Somehow those early camping experiences planted a seed in me. I now have the same kind of love of adventure and Isle Royale is the place where an adventure of the past, and the present day, came together.
A low-tech 1960s family adventure
Given my dad’s enthusiasm for camping, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, in the summer of 1963, he and a friend from our small Iowa town decided to take their middle school aged sons (two each) all the way to Grand Portage, Minnesota—a seven hour drive—and then take a boat to Isle Royale National Park and hike its forty miles from west to east. Dad was in his early forties, and my older brother Tom and I were 15 and 12, respectively.
While our family had done a lot of camping, we hadn’t backpacked and the lightweight fabrics and technologies we have now didn’t exist. The five photos that we still have from our trip show our friends wearing Army surplus fatigues. Dad’s friend, the town doctor, ended up cutting off the legs of his pants with a knife a day or so into the trip to cool off. Tom and I wore the clothes we’d have worn to school—beige Levi’s and polo shirts with a penguin on the breast.
We boys carried Boy Scout backpacks and big cotton sleeping bags, and Tom had a canvas covered aluminum Boy Scout canteen—our gear was, basically, toys. The dads both carried fishing rods, but we do not remember eating any fish. In fact, my most enduring memory of the trip is being very hungry by the time we arrived at Rock Harbor after a week on the trail.
"We boys carried Boy Scout backpacks and big cotton sleeping bags, and Tom had a canvas covered aluminum Boy Scout canteen—our gear was, basically, toys."
A modern-day trip: older, wiser, and with better gear
Nearly 60 years after we set foot on Isle Royale the first time, my older brother Tom and I decided to recreate our childhood trip and hike on the same route that followed the Greenstone Ridge Trail from Windigo on the west end of the island to Rock Harbor at the east.
Tom and I had both recently retired. He had a 40-year career as a correspondent for National Public Radio covering everything from labor and education to wars in Central America and Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany and in his final years, the intersection of faith and public life in the US. I’d spent my life working in libraries, mostly in the university.
I always envied my brother’s exciting life but also realized that he may have envied the domesticity of mine. I recall a conversation decades ago in which I told him that I dreamed of doing the things he did ‘while I’m mowing the lawn yet again’ and his reply was ‘I wish I had a lawn to mow.’ Since childhood, we’d never lived close to each other, Tom in other countries or in the DC area, while I lived most of my life in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In 2021, one of us (I can’t remember who) proposed a return trip to Isle Royale. It took a year to find a week that would work for both of us. Even as retired guys, our schedules were busy! We finally decided on a six-day trip—over the long Labor Day weekend of 2022, when the bug population would be minimal and the temperatures comfortable.
In the months and weeks prior to the trip, we shopped for lightweight packs, good hiking boots, a water filtration system, and even a Garmin InReach Mini 2 satellite communicator so we could let our wives know how we were doing. My wife, Lisa, planned our meals and we had more than one debate about how much of this heavy food we needed. In the end, we ate most of what we brought along.
A time for reconnection, reflection—and hiking
I was 71 at the time of the hike and Tom, 74. We’ve been physically active all our lives as runners and bikers, but knees and other joints are starting to show signs of wear. We each worried that one of us would get injured and put the other in a bind.
We read as much as we could about other people’s experiences and talked to each other more than we had in years. I began to see the trip as a way for us to reconnect after a lifetime of being apart and observing each other’s lives from a distance. Nearly every time we talked, we mentioned dad and his audacious idea to do the trip with his young sons.
“I began to see the trip as a way for us to reconnect after a lifetime of being apart and observing each other’s lives from a distance.”
Our 1963 trip was bookended by two thrills for Iowa boys: the boat ride from Grand Portage to Windigo and the seaplane ride back to the mainland on a Grumman Goose, a fat bodied Navy plane that found commercial use after World War II. We were among fewer than 8,000 visitors to the park that year, compared to over 25,000 in 2022.
Isle Royale is still the least visited park in the National Park Service—the need to take a boat or plane to the island limits the number of people who can visit. To save time, we decided in 2022 to fly to and from the island out of Grand Marais, and it was still a thrill. As we loaded our gear into the small plane, the pilot told us that the day before they had to chase wolves off the runway before taking off. The day was perfect, as were the views from the plane—of the Minnesota shore and the Rock of Ages Lighthouse and Canada to the north.
“As we loaded our gear into the small plane, the pilot told us that the day before they had to chase wolves off the runway before taking off.”
We were dropped off in Washington Harbor and after registering at the Windigo Visitor’s Center and filling our water bottles (at the last source of potable water we’d see for six days), we set out on the Greenstone Ridge Trail.
Looking for moose, finding beautiful campsites and a sky full of stars
Our first day’s hike was seven miles to the Island Mine campground, mostly uphill, as the Greenstone runs the length of the island on the spine and over the highest elevations. We met a few other hikers who were enjoying the park in the final days of the season. They were almost all younger than us (who isn’t?) and fresh and strong. I wanted to stop and visit with everyone for a bit and find out what wildlife they’d seen, while Tom was occasionally impatient with my need to chat with everyone. We were almost always alone on the trail, eyes peeled for moose.
As we became familiar with the fit and weight of our packs, I realized that I could make some adjustments as I noticed various pain points—hips, back, knees. We established the pattern for the remainder of the week: hike, find a campsite, treat the water, cook, and clean up, then have some lemon and ginger tea, and, before bed, a wee nightcap of Jameson’s—my luxury item for the trip, which lasted about four days.
On day two, our goal was the Lake Desor South campground at which we arrived by 11:00 AM, unexpectedly early. After a brief discussion, we decided to continue to the next day’s site, Hatchet Lake, a decision that experts will debate for years to come. The day’s mileage ended up being 14 miles, during which we ran out of water (we’d not planned on being out so long) and learned that we’d passed up an afternoon on the best inland lake beach on the island.
The climb down to the campsite at Hatchet is steep and gnarly. Tom thinks he remembers our dad developing shin splints about then—an affliction we’d never heard of. We were, however, one day ahead of schedule. That evening, as we ate, a beautiful fox walked through our campsite, slowly taking in our setup, perhaps comparing us to others it had seen, before wandering off into the woods.
I don’t remember seeing anyone else in 1963, but the people we met this year included Kathy, who had grown up in Duluth with ancestors who were sea captains and lighthouse keepers. She told us that more than once, as a teen, her parents had boated out to the island, dropped her off with her friends at Windigo and then met up with the kids at Rock Harbor days later, making our fretting over gear and ability seem kind of silly.
Our campsites were all beautiful, especially the one at East Chickenbone Lake, higher and closer to the trail than the others which tended to be down the hill by a lake. It was while lying in the tent after dark at Chickenbone that I realized that we’d been turning in so early, I’d not really seen the night sky in this very dark place. I climbed out of bed around midnight to look at the stars, startlingly bright and close. The next morning, we heard wolves howling as we packed our bags.
End of the trail: Daisy Farm and Rock Harbor
Tom and I remembered the last two days of our 1963 hike pretty well—the arrival at Daisy Farm where we could sleep in a shelter and be on the shore of the lake again after several days inland. We drank directly from the lake on that trip—which is no longer recommended. We also remember running the last steps into Rock Harbor, looking forward to something to eat (which turned out to be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches washed down with chocolate milk.)
The sunrise at Daisy Farm was spectacular and the morning was late summer chilly. The trail into Rock Harbor, we now realized, is surprisingly difficult even with the high spirits that come along with completing a hard trip—narrow and right next to the lake or clambering over bare rocks. Ahead of schedule, we had two nights at Rock Harbor, the first, sleeping on the floor of our shelter and the second in a room at the Rock Harbor Lodge. And we had showers! Our dreams of lovely meals and wine were somewhat cracked when we arrived at the lodge’s restaurant to find out that since it was the end of the season, the kitchen was running low on supplies and our menu choices were limited to burgers or pizza and beer. But the food was good (better than PB&J) and our last night—in real beds at the lodge, was lovely. We ran into Kathy again a few times, including the night that we went down to the seaplane dock in hopes of seeing northern lights.
In rocking chairs (!) on the lodge porch, we toasted our dad, and later, looked at the stars one last time. The next morning we boarded the seaplane and flew back to Grand Marais. It had been an outstanding week, with perfect weather, no injuries and lots of conversation between brothers.
As I talked with Tom a couple days ago, he asked me if I wanted to do it again this year.
About the NPLSF The National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation (NPLSF) exists to provide financial support for projects and programs that preserve the natural resources and cultural heritage of the five Lake Superior national parks: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Grand Portage National Monument, Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Funded through grants and private donations, NPLSF projects and programs ensure that these great parks and historic sites are maintained for the enjoyment of all current and future visitors.