“Another one’s coming!” First Mate Kirk Johnson announces as he glances over his shoulder at the wall of water swelling behind our 63 foot aluminum boat, Voyageur II. Captain Mike Hurley grips the stainless steel wheel and when he feels the push of the seven foot wave, eases off the throttle to surf it. In the stern, a few passengers hang over the rail, “feeding the fish.” My family stands in the cabin, wide-eyed and white knuckled gripping the rail, amazed at the turbulent show enfolding on Lake Superior.
Sometimes the passage to Isle Royale National Park is calm, peaceful, and even a sleepy experience. Other times, you rock and roll, fight back vomit, and recall scenes from The Perfect Storm. When you make the commitment to visit one of the most remote, least visited national parks in the U.S. system, you get the feeling that you are about to make a memory.
When you look at a map, you discover that the island is extremely close to Canada, only 30 kilometers from Ontario, and geographically should be part of it, yet Benjamin Franklin toiled to get the island under the U.S. rule. No public ferries sail from Canada (Grand Portage, Minnesota is the closest port), but private Canadian motorboats frequently visit.
Getting to Isle Royale takes some effort and cash and if you take a ferry (recommended), over a seaplane, it can take half the day. But this can be a good thing because the slow approach provides a separation period preparing you to leave civilization behind and enter wilderness. This is not just any wilderness, but an isolated island where a wildlife drama between wolves and moose has been playing out for the past seventy years.
My family and I have come to Isle Royale for eight days: to backpack its 67 kilometer length and camp along the way. Then basing out of Rock Harbor Lodge, we’ll day trip it around the island’s protected bays and harbors, exploring lighthouses, historic mines and fishing settlements in canoes and motorboats. Included will be a visit to the home of world-renowned biologist, Rolf Peterson, who has dedicated his entire career to studying the Isle Royale wolf-moose relationship.
Moose found their way to the 532-square kilometer island in the early 1900’s when they swam the frigid fifteen miles from Ontario, Canada. This was possible since they are natural swimmers and are impervious to cold. They lived in their Shangri-La for close to half a century with no predators, the herd swelling to several thousand, and almost ate to extinction.
In the winter of 1950, wolves entered the scene, when a single alpha male and female padded across the snow-blanketed ice to this largest fresh water lake on the planet. Perfect conditions created combined to form a solid ice bridge from the mainland. The wandering wolves had found a moose banquet.
Over the decades, the populations have spiked and plummeted in this wilderness whose boundaries are defined by geography, not manmade barriers. A confined wildlife drama such as this has never been witnessed before. Everyone who makes the trip out to Isle Royale hopes to see a moose and hear a wolf howl.
There are three portals on the mainland to reach Isle Royale – one from Grand Portage, Minnesota, and two from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula- Copper Harbor and Houghton. Nearly all visitors head for Rock Harbor on the southeast tip, which boasts a 60 room lodge, twenty cabins with full kitchens, a full service restaurant, and multiple opportunities to rent boats and participate in ranger-led excursions.
My family departed on the Ranger III from Houghton, the national park service’s boat that services the island. Besides being the largest, most stable and most comfortable of the ships sailing to the island, on-board rangers offer entertaining and informative programs, even a live concert featuring Canadian reels and jigs led by a fiddler. There are always interesting travelers on board; our trip includes a long distance cyclist from Montreal, a man from Scotland and two Parisians whom share stories.
Backpacking Isle Royale’s length is a popular way to explore the island, and it is on the Voyageur II, during our sail to the opposite end of the island that we encounter the storm and seven foot waves. After getting dropped off at Windigo, the park service settlement on the west side, we will hike back to Rock Harbor in the east.
The Voyageur II was historically the mail boat which brought news and supplies to the commercial fishermen, copper miners and cabin owners. Only the Voyageur II circumnavigates the entire island with every sail and drops off hikers at various campgrounds. Mike has been forced to turn back, once stranded at the harbor for a solid week in August when the whole lake was in lock-down and waves rose over eight feet.
It is an exciting way to begin a four day adventure across the island. We observe the transformation from a warm forest of aspen and sugar maples to a cooler boreal forest in the west. Along the way, we negotiate long boardwalks through swamps and bogs with pitcher plants and orchids and stuff our mouths with blueberries and scarlet thimbleberries. We crouch low to examine massive wolf prints in the mud, are serenaded by the haunting loons and are stunned by the meteorite showers streaking the dark sky. We witness bald eagles diving for a lake trout, and a moose cow and her calf stripping succulent leaves off of branches. Every cliffs and boulder is an opportunity to plunge into cold-blooded Lake Superior.
The trail leads us across the main Greenstone Ridge, over blackened basalt, the oldest lava flow on the earth. Atop the Ojibway fire tower, we survey the land and see how the paralleling ridges shelter lakes and marshes in the interior. From this vantage point, it is possible to see how the north side of the island is riddled with bays, arms and inlets…perfect for paddling.
When we arrive in Rock Harbor Lodge, we rent a motorboat to visit the Rock Harbor lighthouse, the historic Edisen Fishery and Rolf Peterson’s cabin where he conducts his wolf/moose research and shares his fascinating bone yard with visitors.
Amidst the fragrant balsam firs, tables and racks of moose antlers and skulls, hip bones and femurs are displayed. Rolf is conducting arthritis and genetic studies and he shares these findings. The controlled “laboratory” of Isle Royale with its icy waters acting as a natural fence, has created the ideal stage for studying the up and down flex of the moose/wolf population. Presently, the moose population on Isle Royale – 700+, is strong and healthy. This is not the case in Canada and mainland U.S., where Rolf reports, numbers are down.
But the wolf population on the island is teetering on collapse with the pack down to nine animals and only one reproducing female. However, during the aerial winter count, a young female was discovered and renewed hope for the pack’s future.
With the summers comparatively warmer, the likeliness of another ice bridge to tempt imports from the mainland is exceedingly rare. Isle Royale’s wolves have been in the news lately as the potential collapse has spawned a conversation on whether to reintroduce new genes.
Rolf Peterson has hope for the wolves’ future. “Wolves have been known to surprise us. They are resilient.” Regardless of the outcome, whether new wolves are introduced, the remainders pull through on their own, or collapse, their story will continue to draw visitors to Isle Royale. Whether you get you see a moose or hear a wolf howl becomes less important the more time you spend on the island. Just knowing they are there and discovering this jewel in Lake Superior is enough.