An island far from shore in Lake Superior – who had any idea it would be end up being on the list of our favorite national parks? Number 53 out of 60 national parks – the 3+ hour boat ride from Copper Harbor, Michigan, to get to Rock Harbor was not exciting us at all. It turned out to be so worth it we would go back in a heartbeat.
Isle Royale is the least visited national park in the lower 48 but has the highest percentage of return visitors – roughly a third of the visitors each year have been there before. We now understand why. In 2017 only 28,198 people visited Isle Royale. Isle Royale has a short season as it is only open April 16 through October due to extreme winter weather conditions.
The Rock Harbor Lodge complex is the only full-service lodging facility on Isle Royale. We stayed in one of the housekeeping cottages located away from the main hotel and restaurant area and overlooking Tobin Harbor.
Many of the people also arriving on the Isle Royale Queen IV were backpackers or canoe/kayak campers. Everyone who lands on Isle Royale is required to hear a ranger talk about low-impact hiking and camping. Wilderness is important here. The only “roads” on the island are narrow service roads between the dock and the lodge areas with the only motorized vehicles being a small tractor and gator. The island is roughly 45 miles long and has approximately 165 miles of trails.
People have seasonally occupied Isle Royale for thousands of years – copper mining, hunting, fishing, tapping maple syrup and, to some extent, logging. The remoteness of Isle Royale actually saved it from being as highly exploited as much of the north country. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become a tourist destination of hotels and small summer communities.
In 1926, Albert Stoll, conservation editor for the Detroit News, wrote “Isle Royale is different. It is bold, rugged, and magnificent.” Through Stoll’s work, as well as that of cottagers, resort owners and mainland advocates, the idea of Isle Royale as a roadless wilderness park was proposed. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill authorizing establishment of Isle Royale National Park when Michigan had gained title to all the land on Isle Royale. Michigan created a commission to raise money to purchase the private land on the island. In 1940 Isle Royale became a national park.
Defining wilderness can be a very personal thing, but wilderness does have an official definition. “Wilderness” as a place where “man is himself a visitor . . . one who does not remain” was written into law with the Wilderness Act of 1964.
On Isle Royale there are no roads, only trails and these trails are “12-inch man-ways.” They provide a means of access to various parts of the island while maintaining a sense of exploration. We hiked each day we were on the island and thoroughly enjoyed the exquisite scenery, changing terrain and the solitude.
Each evening we attended a ranger talk. In one talk we learned about loons, their habits, and their four different and very distinct calls. Another of the talks was about Visual Arts in the National Parks and the role that the arts had in the establishment of early parks, and a third was by a participant in the Artist-in-Residence program.
Humans share the island with two iconic mammals: moose and wolves. They are descendants of mainlanders that made the island an unexpected ark. Moose arrived on Isle Royale in the early 1900’s presumably by swimming to it and it is largely accepted that wolves arrived by crossing an ice bridge from Canada during the winter of 1948.
While we were on the island, a bull moose was spending quite a bit of time in the Rock Harbor area. We saw him several times near our cottage, on a back trail and in the water in Tobin Harbor. He was massive and quite impressive.
One afternoon we took a canoe out on Tobin Harbor. This was an adventure as I had never been in a canoe and Tom said the only times he had been in one, they had dumped it in the water. This did not inspire confidence. Later he did tell me the last time he had been in a canoe was when he was in boy scouts and most likely they were messing around. At any rate, I did not have waterproof containers for my camera or phone so did not take them with us. The canoe trip turned out great, we did not dump it and it was peaceful and beautiful. Especially memorable was looking to the shore about thirty yards from us and there a moose stood in the water. It would have been a perfect photo.
Currently there are about 1500 moose on the island, which, according to rangers, is too high a number for the island vegetation to maintain well. As of 2016, there were only two wolves on the island and since they are the only moose predator, there is a direct relationship to moose population. The average moose stands at a height of over six feet tall at the shoulder and weighs nearly 1,000 pounds.
The wolf population has varied from 50 animals in 1980 to the low of two since 2016. Wolf population variation is driven by availability of its primary food source of moose, the spread of canine diseases to the island (pets are no longer allowed on the island at all), and genetic inbreeding. Wolves avoid human interaction so the chance of seeing one on Isle Royale is extremely small.
The National Park Service has undertaken a wolf relocation project to increase the wolf population on the island and broaden the gene pool. Four adult grey wolves – one male and three females – from Minnesota were successfully released on Isle Royale between September 25 and October 2, 2018. This fall’s original goal was to relocate an additional two wolves from Michigan but weather halted that operation. An additional four animals from Canada may be brought in this winter. National Parks Traveler online magazine has had several articles about this project. The goal over the next three to five years is to relocate 20 to 30 wolves to Isle Royale. It will be interesting to watch the progress of this program.
On one of our hikes we met a man who had visited Isle Royale with his family as a youngster. He told us he was pleased to see that it was “just like it was in the 60’s.” He went on to say that he was very glad it was a national park that anyone could enjoy and that if it hadn’t been made a park, it would now be heavily populated with summer estates and be only a rich man’s playground.
We all need a little wilderness in our lives. According to Edward Abbey: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.”
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