Adventure photographer Aaron Peterson has compared Isle Royale to the tasty thimbleberries he’s been known to nab for a snack while hiking its rocky trails amid fragrant firs and Lake Superior panoramas. “There are tickles of sweet chased with a slap of tart,” he once wrote, “to remind you that nothing here is easy.”
But ask Peterson and others what they remember from their stays, people who’ve spent long weekends, weeks, even months exploring Michigan’s wilderness island national park — and their voices take on a hushed, even reverential quality. The slap of the occasional bug bite — or sore back from a too-thin camp pad if they didn’t opt for the cushy lodge — are remembered almost as sweetly as the dramatic northern lights, the glimpses of a massive moose and the spine-tingling call of a loon — or was it a wolf?
The only complaint all are certain to utter is: “There’s never enough time. There’s never enough time on Isle Royale.”
Michigan’s island national park is by name and reality a king among wilderness destinations. It’s the least visited of all national parks in the contiguous United States — bested for the fewest visitors honor by one park in Alaska and another in American Somoa. During its mid-April through late October season, the island gets roughly the number of visitors that Yosemite National Park receives on a single June day. But the fact that you can’t drive up or paddle over to it from the mainland is what helps to keep it wild and wonderful for those seeking solitude amid nature or the chance to study a natural laboratory like none other.
A Congressionally designated wilderness and United Nations Biosphere Reserve, the park is an internationally special spot for ecological studies on the impacts of humans — and the lack of people. It’s the site of a study on the interplay between predators (wolves) and prey (moose) that has been underway since the 1950s and currently is awaiting a decision on whether the island wolf population, which has dwindled to two, should be bolstered from the outside. It also is so quiet that the absence of sound is a research topic.
“It’s this mecca for outdoor enthusiasts who want to find authentic wilderness in the Great Lakes, and it’s our home wilderness — what our home would look like if we could step back in time,” said Vic Foerster, author of two books of essays about the park. “It’s also one of the foremost outdoor laboratories in the world.”
While the wolf and moose study gets the most notoriety, the island also is home to air and water quality monitoring that establishes a baseline for natural resource quality in the Midwest. Also monitored are eagle and osprey migratory routes, indigenous fish populations, and even the interplay between rabbits and fox. Those studies become part of a visitor’s stay, Foerster notes. The topics are regularly addressed in the nightly camp programs offered by rangers.
Foerster’s first essay in “Naked in the Stream: Isle Royale Stories” opens with him meeting a first-time visitor on the ferry, a man almost in shock from the island’s quiet. Even the unusually still soundscape is a research subject in this natural laboratory, and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees named it one of the country’s five quietest national parks.
That doesn’t surprise George Desort, a filmmaker who first spent many winters on the island to produce “Fortunate Wilderness: The Wolf and Moose Study of Isle Royale” and went back to hike and paddle alone for 80 days for the more intimate documentary “Fifty Lakes, One Island.” The sound of Lake Superior pounding on rocks can be deafening, but one can move just steps into the interior and find silence. “It blankets you with calm,” Desort said. “It’s infectious. And it quiets the soul.”
Seeing Isle Royale moose
Train your moose-spotting eye by visiting the Bangsund Cabin, headquarters for the wolf-moose study. Researchers encourage the public to walk the grounds, notes Desort, who spent many hours there. Touch what has become something of a museum of moose antlers of many shapes and sizes.
With 1,600 living moose on the island, the odds are good of spotting one, particularly in lowland marshes and even on the edge of campgrounds. Moose often linger near places frequented by people, one means of protection from predators that are skittish around humans. When guidebook author Jim DuFresne visited in 1992 and the moose population was 2,200, “it was amazing,” he said. “One night, we were camping at Feldtmann Lake in a little tent, two of us, and a bull was chasing a cow right along the trail. We could hear him snort. Back then, we would see five or six moose a day.”
Peterson says his most memorable wildlife moment was when a great blue heron took off by his kayak’s bow inside pretty McCargoe Cove, close enough that he heard the whoosh. Loons are another wildlife highlight at Isle Royale. They are audible and visible even from the Rock Harbor Lodge, but especially fun to watch feeding their chicks in the island’s sheltered harbors.
Many first-timers hike the island’s 40-mile Greenstone Ridge trail, the main thoroughfare from one end of the island to the other, and it’s perfect for a first great wilderness adventure. Experts hike it in three days, beginners in four or five, rewarded by high panoramas and easy side hikes down to sheltered lakes. Paddling is an increasingly popular way to explore, too, and Foerster loves the remoteness of the northern shore — a great spot, too, for northern lights viewing, though he cautions only experts should attempt the often-open water paddle. Throughout the island, the authentic landscape brings up something authentic within, he says.
“Isle Royale is a place everyone seeks on a map then says to themselves, ‘One day.’” he notes. “Just make sure that day arrives.”
First-time visitors to the island, even if they’re experts on wilderness hikes and camping, often make similar but easily avoidable mistakes, according to Jim DuFresne, trails expert and author of “Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes.” He suggests you don’t:
Think you must camp. Those not comfortable carrying a pack or wilderness camping can book a room at Rock Harbor Lodge, generally widely available at the beginning and end of the season, or one of the park’s waterfront cabins. You’ll hear loon calls from the roomy porch and can take scenic day hikes. Book a park ferry and get dropped at a remote spot on the island and hike back from there — or do a short overnight.
Take too much gear if you do opt for backpacking and wilderness camping. Take enough food but just enough that you’ve nothing more than an emergency granola bar left at trip’s end.
Make it a horse race. Keep hike plans at six to eight miles a day, leaving time to start the day leisurely, stop for lunch and be at your next campground by mid-afternoon. You can take pack-free walks from there.
It’s this mecca for outdoor enthusiasts who want to find authentic wilderness in the Great Lakes, and it’s our home wilderness — what our home would look like if we could step back in time.
— Vic Foerster
Start where everyone else does. Isle Royale isn’t crowded in even the busiest of times. But if you start your trip with others disembarking from the Ranger III or another ferry, you’ll likely hike with the group all day and reach first-come shelters with the gang. Switch it up by having one of the island ferries drop you at a stop like Chippewa Harbor for your starting point.
Forget about the canoeing or kayaking option for exploring. Experts can traverse the island via the Lake Superior shoreline, and relative beginners can paddle the fjord-style, projected inland lakes. There are two tricky portages, the worst at 2.2 miles, but the rest are easy and fishing great on inner-island lakes.
If you go…
From Michigan, the best routes to reach the island are via the 128-passenger Ranger III, running between Houghton and Rock Harbor, $106 roundtrip, $126 high season (mid-July through late August) or the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor.
The Isle Royale Seaplane (isleroyaleseaplanes.com), $320 roundtrip, is the fastest option at just 35 minutes of travel time and offers day trips and overnights, including an optional cabin for $89/night.
The park charges a $7 per day admission fee, covering camping at the island’s 36 first-come campgrounds, all accessible by trail or water. Rooms at the Rock Harbor Lodge run $256 per night in peak season, cottages with kitchens, $248/night. nps.gov/isro
It blankets you with calm. It’s infectious. And it quiets the soul.
— George Desort
Go with a guide
Woods and Water Ecotours runs scheduled trips and private multiday group trips to the island annually, offering lodge-based paddling outings for all ability levels, short hikes, meals and visits to island research centers. woodsandwaters.eco/links
Michigan Technological University offers educational outing options; it partners with Elderhostel on a Roads Scholar program for older adults, runs a family camp expedition and leads “Moosewatch” programs, where volunteers participate in the study of island animal populations. bit.ly/MTUIsleRoyale
Kim Schneider is an award-winning travel writer who has visited nearly every corner of Michigan.