“We should go to Isle Royale National Park for a backpacking trip.” With those words, uttered over 45 years ago from my oldest brother, the seeds were planted within my mind for a wilderness adventure the likes of which I have never known. What was the inspiration for his idea? Maybe a National Geographic article, but those details are lost through the sands of time. With mounting excitement and young imaginations running wild, plans were made, checklists formed. But I was only 9 at the time and my brother 16; both naive and inexperienced on the planning, gear requirements, expenses, and logistics to undertake such a trek nearly 450 miles from home. Reality set in… “Maybe next year” until it faded to oblivion. But the seed had been planted and a recent saying caught my attention that changed everything: “There are seven days in the week and Someday isn’t one of them.” Fact is, I’m not getting any younger and if I didn’t take the trip soon, I knew I never would. So, come Hell or High-water, Isle Royale, here I come.
Formed from a massive lava flow a billion years ago, then repeatedly scrubbed and crushed from countless glaciers, Isle Royale is a National Park within the United States. It’s a 45 x 9 mile island anchored within Lake Superior situated only 18 miles from the Minnesota / Canadian coast but is claimed by the state of Michigan. Wilderness is king here. The only wheeled contraption allowed is a wheelchair. The island is crisscrossed with 165 miles of rough, sometimes muddy trail and transportation throughout the island is either backpacking or watercraft. Established as a National Park in 1940, it received only 16,663 visitors in 2013. Yosemite National Park, with 2,700,000 visitors can see more people in a single day than Isle Royale gets in a year.
Being an island, Isle Royale is unique to a study in the predator / prey relationship between wolves and moose. Strong swimmers, moose made their way to the island in the early 1900s. With no predators, their population would ebb and flow with the food supply, ranging from 500 to 2,500 animals. In the late 1940s an especially cold winter froze the 18 mile expanse of water between the island and Canada and two wolves crossed the narrow ice bridge. This helped cull the moose herd but a lack of genetic diversity and a disease brought by a visitor’s pet canine in 1980 decimated the wolf population from 50 animals to just three today. There is concern this will once again allow moose numbers to swell and then crash. The park service is currently reviewing its hands-off policy and may introduce additional wolves to the island in the future. Note since the 1980 plague incident, no pets are allowed within park boundaries, which means Fido isn’t even allowed on a boat within four miles of shore.
Anyone spending the night can choose from a variety of accommodation. The most comfortable are at Rock Harbor Lodge with modern hotel rooms and cabins for rent. For roughing it, camping is available at 36 campsites dispersed throughout the island. Access to these sites varies: some are on trails for backpackers, others on shore catering to kayakers and canoeists, and some are available to all, including powerboats complete with docks. Amenities provided may include camping pads, three-sided roofed and screened shelters, fire rings, picnic tables and outhouses. Generally, the further a trail site is from Lake Superior, the fewer the amenities i.e. those on inland lakes will not have picnic tables or shelters. With the exception of the campground at Rock Harbor, no potable water is available. Dispersed camping is also permitted but requires a special permit. All camping is free though a daily park fee of $4 / day is collected for all over the age of 12 years.
Several passenger ferries service the island with all landing at one of two harbors: Windigo to the west and Rock Harbor to the east. One of the ferries also circumnavigates the island stopping at set locations to a fixed schedule (weather permitting). In this way, hikes can be cut short or food resupply made possible. Here are the transportation options:
- M.V. Ranger III from Houghton, Michigan
Owned and operated by the National Park Service, the Ranger III is the largest ship traveling to the island. At 165 feet in length, 35 feet wide and displacing 648 tons, it carries 128 passengers and can transport small motorboats up to 20 feet in length. Cost is the least of all transportation options especially if one takes advantage of the ½ price Ranger III Birthday Celebration fare spanning a twelve day period during mid-June each year. The 70 mile trip takes about six hours.
- Sea Hunter III from Grand Portage, Minnesota
A privately run 65 foot ship sailing to Windigo. The 20 mile trip is about 2 hours.
- M.V. Voyageur II from Grand Portage, Minnesota
A privately run 65 foot ship sailing to Windigo. The 20 mile trip takes about 2 hours. After stopping at Windigo the boat continues in a clockwise circumnavigation of the island stopping at docks along the way. In this manner, passengers and parcels are delivered to remote locations. The boat overnights at Rock Harbor before continuing its loop the following day.
- Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor, Michigan
A privately run 100 foot vessel, infamously known as the Barf Barge, that sails to Rock Harbor. The 55 mile trip takes a bit over three hours.
Several seaplane operators provide transportation to the island. Obviously the most costly way to get there but also the shortest duration and most scenic. Limitations on what can be carried on the plane could be a deal breaker. Search the internet for sources.
- Personnel watercraft
Yes, you can motor your own boat to Isle Royale. But keep in mind you’re crossing the largest fresh water lake in the world capable of fearsome, merciless tempests. Water temperature in June is about 35 degrees Fahrenheit so if you wouldn’t take your boat into the North Atlantic, you probably shouldn’t attempt a crossing to the island.
Since I’m frugal by nature, I’ll be taking advantage of the Ranger III half price fare and will depart for the island from Houghton, Michigan on Tuesday, June 9th. My plan is to backpack a 50 mile clockwise loop spanning eight days over the eastern half of the island, spending each night at a different campground. The most difficult days will be trekking the trails running north and south whereby the Greenstone Ridge (the island’s backbone) must be traversed. June is considered slow season so with any luck, I’ll be able to snag a shelter most nights thus avoiding setting up or taking down camp in rain. I’ll spend my last evening on the island at the Rock Harbor campground to ease the staging effort for the Wednesday morning ferry back to Houghton. Once back on the mainland, I’ll be riding north to the end of the Keweenaw Peninsula at Copper Harbor. There are some really nice roads there. This is a solo trip covering 14 days from home budgeted at $50 / day.