Standing at the prow, I faced forward into the wind and breathed. The steel hull of the passenger ferry sliced through the lake, curling the gentle seas into two bow waves breaking on either side of the ship. At 12 knots, my eyes watered. Accustomed to pulling my way through the water with a paddle, the speed seemed reckless.
It was a relief to feel Lake Superior air on my face again. After spending a week outdoors, camping, I needed to get out of the pilothouse where I’d been catching up with Captain Don. Canoeing the past seven days and sleeping outside every night made me conscious of the slightest indoor sensation. Although Don had the doors wide open, the cabin still felt stuffy.
Only three other passengers were on the forward deck at the prow. It offered no protection from the cold breeze. People came and went quickly. We were two hours into the four-and-one-half hour boat ride from Isle Royale to Copper Harbor, and by now, the campers had scattered across the ship, each of them settled into a seat to their liking. Returning to the Michigan mainland, their vacations now over, everyone had that look on their face they get when they’re reliving the past. There were only one-to-two footers on the lake. It was going to be a smooth ride today. Several passengers were sleeping. I walked over and stood alongside a young man leaning against the outside rail. With his elbows propped on the railing, he was staring out at the lake. He glanced over, smiled, and nodded. When I was in the pilothouse, I noticed him because he remained on the front deck, not leaving his vigilant study of the lake to find a cozier spot inside.
“How are you doing?” I asked, leaning forward against the rail next to him.
He didn’t say anything for so long that I wondered if he heard. But then he said without turning to look at me, “You know … I feel … absolutely … wonderful. This was my first trip to Isle Royale … and … I can’t begin to say how great it was … to get so far away. It’s so … quiet.” His voice trailed away with the word “quiet” as if he was reluctant to speak too loudly. He then slowly turned, looked squarely into my face and asked, “How many times have you been to Isle Royale?”
His question surprised me, and it shouldn’t have. It’s a common question among passengers on the Isle Royale Queen. It’s one of those icebreakers campers use when they meet someone they’ve never met before. But I hadn’t thought about it for a long while. At my hesitation, he looked at me even more intently.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Well, I’ve been coming almost every year for thirty years and sometimes more than once a year. I suppose it depends on how you count.”
He seemed to have a hard time digesting that, so I added, “That’s not a lot. Ken, my fishing partner, has been coming ten years longer than I, and of course, some people actually live and work out there.”
He turned back to look at the lake again and said, “I can’t imagine.”
People get like that on Isle Royale. Separated from cars and traffic, TV and computers, their cellphones and all of the other accoutrements of civilization, returning to a more natural rhythm of living — it slows a person down. The wilderness island creates a more relaxed pace, makes me think about how I really feel about a matter before I jump into a conversation and squeeze my opinion into the frenetic discussions I so often have at home.
I found myself staring at him. He gazed back out at the water with a composed, relaxed expression, as if several years of hard living had recently melted away from such a young face. It struck me that he looked like me, only a me from thirty years ago.
Always eager to talk about Isle Royale, I proceeded to tell him about some of what I’d experienced over the years — close encounters with wolves and moose, the great fishing, sunrises over Lake Superior, and paddling across water so smooth the wake from the canoe was the largest ripple. But, after a few moments, I too became quiet.
Maybe I sounded shallow. It felt like I was trying to impress him instead of sharing the experience, which he was so clearly reliving at that moment. It was as if I was showing him around my trophy room or talking about my trips to the island like each one was another notch on my adventure belt. Shutting up, I wished him well, walked around the ship to the stern and rejoined Ken.
He was sitting outdoors on the stern deck where we normally stake ourselves for the voyage home, reading a book he’d started on the island. I sat down next to him and watched the ship’s wake and prop wash, which stretched behind us for a couple hundred feet before dissolving into the lake. I couldn’t get the brief conversation or the passenger’s demeanor out of my mind. He made me realize my attitude about Isle Royale had changed over the years. Actually, it was more than that. He made me see I will never again look at the island as he does right now. But there was a time … ≈
The above prologue from “Naked in the Stream: Isle Royale Stories” by Vic Foerster is printed with permission of the author and publisher (2010, Arbutus Press). Author Vic Foerster is a professional arborist who visited Isle Royale at least once a year for 30 years. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where is working on a second book about Isle Royale.