One thousand feet below us, Isle Royale National Park was all we could see. From the vantage point of a seaplane, the park looked like a geological washboard, its basalt ridges and 400 islands rising above Lake Superior’s surface, calm and mirror-like on this August afternoon. I saw my husband Bruce shift his weight in the airplane seat. Was he angling for a better view? Or was he nervous?
Bruce and I had visited Isle Royale before. But previous visits had been weekend treks centered on day hikes. This time, we would thru-hike the Greenstone Ridge, a 43-mile trail that traces the length of the park’s largest island, Isle Royale. And our hike would be compounded by physical limitations. Bruce was just months removed from a serious accident, a collision with a pick-up truck on a morning walk that had rendered him briefly wheelchair bound. His left leg still was recovering from a severe fracture and reconstruction.
“I’m planning to thru-hike Isle Royale this summer,” Bruce had informed his surgeon weeks before our departure. “What do you think?”
“Well, that will test you,” smiled the surgeon. “I think you should go.” We trusted the doctor and packed our bags.
The westernmost end of Isle Royale revealed a landscape accustomed to heavy snow and rain, and as if to prove the point, the clouds broke open on our first full day on the trail. A dense overstory of conifers offered meager relief from the driving rain. In low-lying areas, thimbleberry bushes and hip-high ferns reached out to us, constant reminders of a forest ready to reclaim this trail once the hikers left. And thick mud sucked at our hiking boots.
“How much longer before we reach the campground?” complained Bruce as we wound our way downhill toward the shores of Hatchet Lake and the evening’s campsite. His knee had begun to ache.
“The weather can be intense here,” said Isle Royale National Park Chief of Information and Cultural Resources Liz Valencia, who has worked at the park since 1992. “And Isle Royale is very isolated.” The nearest Michigan town is Copper Harbor, 3½ hours by ferry to the south, and the national park is fully closed to humans six months of the year.
“Visitors can find themselves really immersed in the wilderness at Isle Royale,”
Valencia said. “But that isolation and the presence of Lake Superior are also what makes Isle Royale so special.”
If outdoor enthusiasts represent the vast majority of today’s 18,500 annual visitors, Isle Royale hasn’t always been deemed a leisure getaway. As early as 2500 B.C., Native Americans extracted the island’s copper, followed by miners of European descent in the early 19th century. Commercial fisheries dotted the island’s shores with weather-beaten shanties for a century beginning in the 1830s. And in 1935, logging crews affiliated with the Civilian Conservation Corps exported Isle Royale’s first 18,000 cords of pulpwood to Wisconsin paper mills.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that tourism became a force on Isle Royale, as industrialized Midwestern city-dwellers escaped for the island’s idyllic lighthouses, boating excursions and picnics on the banks of Lake Superior. Isle Royale’s designation as a national park in 1931 promised “to preserve a prime example of Northwoods wilderness,” according to the National Park Service (NPS), further upping the number of leisure travelers and preserving the landscape that Bruce and I hiked through on this August day.
A light breeze and early morning sunshine filled our tent and lifted our spirits the next day. A good night’s sleep seemed to have worked magic on Bruce’s aching leg, and any doubts about our fortitude seemed to have vanished with the clouds.
By midday, we reached the open ground of Mount Siskiwit, a 1,200-foot promontory that offered views of Isle Royale’s northern shore. Soaking up the heat of the mountain’s sun-warmed basalt, we shielded our eyes from the bright rays of the sun as it glanced off Lake Superior’s smooth surface. Already, yesterday’s rain seemed a distant memory.
As the miles passed, we noticed a gradual change in the island’s landscape, signs that we were approaching Isle Royale’s leeward side. The tortured firs so prevalent on previous days began yielding to birch and sugar maples, and the Greenstone’s hard-packed ferny route had transformed into a gravel path that snaked through wind-blown grasses and wild asters. The sun continued to shine, the temperature rose and we began to search for one of the 1,600 moose synonymous with Isle Royale.
It’s a subject of much discussion here on Isle Royale, the increasing number of resident moose, the declining number of wolves and the precarious ratio of predator to prey. In the late 1940s, gray wolves are thought to have first arrived via ice bridge from Ontario, helping to maintain the stability of Isle Royale’s moose herd. But Lake Superior’s warming waters and inbreeding have since depleted the wolf population, bringing the total number of animals from a high of 50 in 1980 to a low of two in 2016. In June 2018, concerns of a serious wildlife imbalance led the NPS to approve reintroduction of gray wolves, releasing the first four animals in September 2018 and 11 more in early 2019.
“Most visitors are excited about the reintroduction of wolves to Isle Royale,” Valencia said. “Others think that nature should just be left alone. Reactions vary.” The NPS plans to relocate a total of 20 to 30 wolves to Isle Royale within the next three to five years.
We wouldn’t see any wolves on this trek, nor moose, the latter inclined to gather in Lake Superior’s protective harbors. And so, we hiked onward, up and over rocky accordion folds until we reached Mount Ojibway and our first glimpse of civilization.
The mountain’s bald top and 1,130-foot altitude revealed glimmering Lake Superior to the south, the water streaked by boat traffic. Rock Harbor Lighthouse thrust its white head above the trees, and we could just make out the buildings of Rock Harbor Lodge, the end of the Greenstone Ridge Trail.
Bruce wasn’t content to take in the view from here, not when Mount Ojibway’s mountaintop fire tower promised a broader view. My fear of heights kept me grounded, but I watched him bound up the 50 steps to the lookout. Whether his limberness came of the previous day’s exercise, the warmth of this summer day or the prospect of a great view, he had all but forgotten his weak leg.
“We should make plans to come back,” Bruce said, returning again to terra firma. “There are over 100 miles of trails on Isle Royale, and we could make a goal of hiking all of them: Minong Ridge, Feldtmann Ridge, the Ishpeming Trail. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Tomorrow night, we’ll have hot showers and cold beers. We’ll sleep in real beds and gaze heavenward after dark for a look at the Milky Way. But for now, we lingered in the sunshine. Here in the middle of Lake Superior, summer is fleeting. Best to enjoy the day while it lasts.
If You Do…
Transportation: Ferry prices to Isle Royale begin at $55 one way from Houghton or Copper Harbor; seaplane rates begin at $220 one way from Houghton.
Permit: National Park entrance fees cost $7/person per day or $80 for an annual National Park pass that allows as many as three adults to accompany the pass holder.
Lodging: The Rock Harbor Ranger Station hosts Isle Royale’s only lodge and fully furnished housekeeping cabins. Camper cabins are in Windigo, at the trail’s western terminus and at a few backcountry campgrounds. Backpackers must obtain free backcountry camping permits upon arrival and be prepared to filter and carry each day’s water. Island campsites are first come, first served but large enough to share.
Season: Isle Royale is open to the public April 16-Oct. 31, with June through September considered prime hiking and camping months. nps.gov/isro
Royal Day Hikes
Visitors can easily enjoy Isle Royale’s natural beauty via spectacular day hikes from Rock Harbor. Favorites include:
Stoll Trail 4.2-mile loop, easy
Hike from Rock Harbor Lodge toward the tip of Scoville Point for views of buff-colored cliffs washed by the pounding Lake Superior surf.
Lookout Louise Trail 2 miles round trip, difficult
Paddle across Tobin Harbor to reach the trailhead, which begins at Hidden Lake, a favorite grazing spot for moose. From the lake, the trail leads steeply upward, promising sweeping views of the harbor and Isle Royale’s northern shore.
Tobin Harbor Trail 6 miles round trip, easy
Hike the southern shore of Tobin Harbor, where a thick carpet of pine needles leads beneath towering fir trees and a shoreline popular with paddlers and otters.
Rock Harbor Trail 7.6 miles round trip, moderate
Follow Isle Royale’s southernmost shore over rocky promontories and past the crashing waves of Lake Superior. Combine the route with the Tobin Harbor Trail for a 7.3-mile loop or take a quick side trip at mile 1.8 to Suzy’s Cave.
Amy Eckert is an award-winning travel writer based in Holland.