The morning had grown warm by the time I crested Isle Royale National Park’s Minong Ridge. I adjusted my pack and took in the view. The ridgeline was bare except for tufts of grass and a handful of gnarled cedars. Lake Superior’s frigid waters sparkled below. Ontario was a green ribbon on the horizon.
Ojibwe tribal elders tell of terrible battles between the thunderbird and underwater lynx spirits that occurred where I stood. Now I saw why the Ojibwe spoke of this place with reverence and awe. Spanning several miles, a thunderhead moved toward me from Canada. Rain fell in sheets beneath it. I gave the storm 20 minutes before it rolled over me.
Two days earlier I’d been aboard a ferryboat out of Grand Portage, Minn., that circumnavigates the Isle Royale archipelago. Isle Royale, situated in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, is one of the most remote and wild of the country’s national parks. I sat atop the engine compartment as the boat nosed around the island to McCargoe Cove, and I mentally ran through my gear. I wore a T-shirt and trousers made of a quick-dry fabric. A laminated map was tucked in my pocket. A tent, water filter, compass and trekking poles filled my pack. Zipped into a pouch was my grandpa’s Army medal from World War I.
This trip represented my first solo hike in the island’s back country. Minong Ridge has a reputation for toughness, so few people hike it. I’d picked it for the solitude. The trail runs 31 miles along barren ridges and boreal forest. Hikers follow small piles of stones for direction. I was on my own from the moment the deckhand tossed my pack onto the McCargoe dock to the moment, three long days later, when I walked into Windigo Ranger Station.
Now, as the storm enveloped the green hills ahead of me in blue and the wind grew stronger, I felt less keen about solitude. Thunder echoed off the Greenstone Ridge to the east. Then I slipped on a patch of scree and sprawled onto the bedrock.
My thoughts crescendoed with fear as I stood up: What are you doing alone on a bare outcrop? What about losing the trail in the rain? Who’s going to help you out of here if you break a leg?
“Grandpa,” I said as the clouds rolled toward me. “I am so scared.”
I stopped and took a deep pull from my water bottle. I closed my eyes and saw the lean frame of a man I’d never met, saw the smile of a man who’d died eight years before I was born, and felt his hand on my shoulder. Grandpa was here, on the Minong, watching out for me. Calmness settled within my chest. Just keep on walking, I thought.
A spatter of rain, another crack of thunder. Then the storm pivoted eastward, blowing away from me. I kept on walking.
That evening, surrounded by birch trees, I camped on the shore of an inland lake. The acres of dripping leaves held a deep, monastic silence. I sat on the shoreline as a loon dove, surfaced and then called to a mate. I felt at peace for the first time in a long while. Eighteen miles of hard trail were behind me. Thirteen more miles waited in the morning. A thought rose in the stillness: Do I love me?
An image of four old men in pressed black robes followed that thought, figments of my inner world that represent fear, doubt, guilt and insecurity. Back home, these “judges” review my day with eyes of polished stone. They never smile. “You’re not good enough,” one proclaims. The other three nod, and the gavel swings down: “Guilty!”
However, those old justices had not joined me here. The thought returned: Do I love me?
The moon rose, almost full, against a sky of burnished copper. The loon paddled away. Soon I would accomplish my journey. I took a deep breath. What knowledge would I carry from this place? I stood and gazed at the lake. Then I smiled.
Do I love me?
“Yes,” I answered.