Friday, July 24, 2015

Backpacking Michigan's Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale (pronounced "royal") National Park is an island wilderness 70 miles north of Houghton, Michigan, but only 15 miles south of the Canadian border. Though much closer to Canada, it was annexed to the United States at the 1783 Treaty of Paris, probably due to a cartographer's error. The island is 45 miles long by 8.5 miles at its widest point and it contains 210 square miles of wilderness. The highest point is Mt. Desor at 1394 feet elevation.

No vehicles or roads are on the island and it is comprised of 99% wilderness. Two areas are developed. Rock Harbor on the east end is the major entry area, with lodge, cabins, restaurant, store, snack shop, Ranger Station, and marina. Windigo is on the west end and is less developed, with no lodging other than camping, but with a store, Ranger Station, and marina.

Isle Royale became a national park in 1931. Native Americans were mining the island's copper deposits as early as 2000 B.C. In 1981 the island was designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations.

The Greenstone Ridge Trail traverses the island's mountainous backbone and parallels the strenuous Minong Trail, originally constructed for fire fighting access. 166 miles of trail are in place on Isle Royale and all are maintained. Plank walkways are used to span boggy areas to preserve the environment. One trail was even closed and relocated after a family of bald eagles with young moved into a tree bordering the trail. The most famous residents of the island are the 2000 plus moose and 16 or so wolves, both the subjects of the 50+ year study started by Rolf Peterson. Also available are fishing and canoing in Lake Superior and the numerous inland lakes. Over 200 smaller islands surround the main island.

This is an aerial view of Rock Harbor, the largest of the two "non-wilderness" areas on Isle Royale. In the foreground you see the Lodge buildings. Cabins are also available. The water closest to you is Lake Superior. The next area of water is Rock Harbor in which the National Park Service boat (Ranger) is partially visible, and behind it to the right is the Visitor Center. The next water area above this is Tobin Harbor, which is about three miles long. The seaplane lands here.

Yellowstone National Park has more visitors in one day than Isle Royale has in a year, and Isle Royale is the only national park to completely close down for the winter.

The moose have been on the island for 70 years and have never been hunted by man. Though very large and still possibly dangerous, they are neither intimidated nor threatened and do not bolt away from people. Flying ticks (which fortunately do not attack man) torment these beasts constantly. Tens of thousands of the ticks have been found on some moose corpses, indicating the enormity of the problem.  Seeing moose in the water is a rare treat. Most people are unaware that moose are aquatic animals. They frolic and play in the water, are able to swim great distances rapidly, and even dive underwater to reach underwater plants to eat. We were fortunate to observe all these behaviors from our campsite.

The moose probably migrated (swam) over to the island in the early 1900s. During the cold winter of 1948-49, an ice bridge allowed a small pack of Eastern Timber Wolves to cross over from Canada. Wolf populations have ranged from 12 to 50, but usually at the lower end of that range. The island is a closed system, so wolf-moose population sizes and inter-connections have been studied since the 1950s.

In 1993, my son and I took Len and his daughter, Laura, to Isle Royale when they expressed an interest in learning to backpack. Then Scott and I returned in 1995 to explore the entire island, end to end.

Wetlands abound on the island, and the NPS trail crews have constructed plank walkways in fragile areas to preserve the environment, and as a fringe benefit, keep backpackers' boots dry and clean. You often see moose tracks alongside the planks, and I've had to pause hiking and wait for a browsing moose to finish his snack before continuing forward. There are no black bear or white-tailed deer on the island.

The wooden shelter below is located at the western end of the island at Windigo. Most of the campsites on the Lake Superior shoreline also have shelters (86 in total), available on a first-come, first-served basis. They are screened on the open side which keeps bugs out. The shelters are especially handy in wet weather, which we experienced several days. Picnic tables are also supplied at campgrounds which have shelters.

The Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs along the center of the island and is the island's backbone, is atop the ridge line. One night we camped at East Chickenbone Lake Campground seen below. A large open area nearby provided us with marvelous views of the annual Perseids Meteor Shower our night there! With no light pollution to interfere, the natural fireworks were spectacular! Thirty-six camp areas are available on the island, about half of which have docks available.

In the photo below we are lunching along the shore at the Moskey Basin Lakeside Campground. The drop-dead scenery is awesome no matter where you stop! One superlative I read about the island: Siskiwit Lake is the largest lake on the island; it has Ryan Island, which is the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island (Isle Royale) in the largest freshwater lake in the world (Lake Superior)!

Here I am at the high point of the island on the Greenstone Ridge Trail at Mt. Desor, a whopping 1394 feet above sea level -- far from the heights of the Rockies, of course, but Isle Royale does offer the best backpacking in the midwest.

When you arrive at the island, a ranger will discuss regulations and provide the free permit. You will also be warned that tapeworm is a remote but real possibility, and therefore only boiling of water or purification with a pump filtering down to 25 microns provides safety. Let me warn you to carry a spare cartidge if you choose to pump water because the filter will clog quickly due to sediment in the water. You will not even approach the 200 quarts or whatever the filter advertises as its capacity.

Access to the island is by ferry from Houghton or Copper Harbor, Michigan, or from Grand Portage, Minnesota (or your own watercraft.)


The National Park Service's Isle Royale website has answers to all your questions as well as maps and brochures.

Backpacking in Michigan by Pat Allen and Gerald DeRuiter: University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI; 188 pages.

Isle Royale National Park: Trails and Water Routes by Jim DuFresne: The Mountaineers Publishing Co., Seattle, WA; 144 pages. 

1 comment:

Susan Little said...

Very helpful blog! I tried to email you but it wouldn't go through. I am planning on hiking in Isle Royale in May or June of this year. Thanks for the info and I have also been visiting the National Parks! 50 so far, and will cover Cuyahoga Valley, Isle Royale and Voyagers on this next trip. Onward and forward! Susan Little: