Aug 2 2008
Our 100-passenger ferry is rocking me like a drunken, slapdash sailor, so my eyes stay closed during most of this three-hour ride. I am a wimp, with a thankfully empty stomach, who dares not stand or eye the ever-tilting horizon.
Never expect Lake Superior to behave. This body of water has chosen exuberance over obedience more than once with me, which makes it hard to grow fond of him, but putting up with the impudence sometimes yields exquisite rewards.
One is Isle Royale National Park, an archipelago of 400-some islands, the longest of which is 45 miles. Backpackers and kayakers can roam for days and not repeat their route. The world’s longest-running predator-prey research, involving moose and wolves, began here 50 years ago and shows no sign of waning.
Day visits to Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor are possible but ludicrous. Why spend six hours (or longer) sailing, with only two or three hours to explore? Ferries cruise roundtrip daily, at most. Four-person seaplane service from Houghton, Mich., cuts the trip to the park to 35 minutes, but a one-way fare is $185 per person.
“You don’t go to Isle Royale unless you’re committed to being there,” concludes Phyllis Green, superintendent. Her park is one of the least-visited in the National Park Service.
Isle Royale gets about as many visitors in a year (16,000) as the Grand Canyon averages on a summer day, but the average Isle Royale stay is four days, compared to about six hours at the Grand Canyon.
One out of four who visit Isle Royale will return another time, and Phyllis says this ratio for repeat business is one of the highest among national parks.
You’ll see kayaks and canoes, but not autos, bicycles or pets. Only 17 mammals make Isle Royale their home, says ranger Mark Kudrav, “and if you take out the bats, you’re down to 14 or 15.”
Mosquitoes and black flies will irritate in swarms until late July, but Lyme disease and poison ivy are not a problem. Ticks threaten the health of moose but not humans.
Most visitors come to backpack and camp; some will hire a water taxi to take them miles away and then hike back to Rock Harbor. A popular starting point, Chippewa Harbor, is a 12-mile walk. The trek back can be tranquil or arduous, depending upon weather and preparedness in gear.
Camping is rustic. A few campsites have three-sided shelters, to screen out insects and wildlife. The less-adventurous bring their own provisions and rent one of 20 roomy housekeeping cottages with kitchenettes. Rock Harbor Lodge accommodates still others, in 60 motel rooms; adding hearty meals to the daily rate is an option. A snack bar cooks up lighter fare; all menus are at the mercy of whatever provisions are delivered by ferry.
“Most people, once they get here, find there’s more to do than they expected,” says Kim Alexander, lodge manager. Park rangers organize hikes and evening talks about history or habitat.
“The first time you see (visitors), they’re backpackers,” he says. “Then that 50-pound pack gets heavy and they come back as lodge guests during their next visit.”
A few miles away, at Edisen Island, Leslie Mattson shares his love for commercial fishing with the occasional visitor; he and wife Donna maintain a small home at water’s edge. A short hike uphill leads to the park’s oldest lighthouse, built in 1855. Head in another direction, and you’ll find the headquarters for the predator-prey research.
Excursion boats also take the curious toward Lookout Louise, where on a clear day you’ll see Canada and get a good sense of how many patches of wilderness make up the park. En route, at Hidden Lake, let the birds sing to you – and watch for moose at the shoreline. Expect wild orchids and roses to dot the landscape in summer.
Hitting a rock, a patch of fog or a reef at dark historically has been enough to make a difference between divinity and disaster. In the waters surrounding Isle Royale, what appears to be paradise also has been the site of 10 major shipwrecks.
I wouldn’t have guessed it, based on the ferry ride back to Copper Harbor. It was smooth and beguiling, just the opposite of how this trip began.
For more about Isle Royale National Park: www.nps.gov/isro, 906-482-0984. The park is open until Oct. 31 and reopens April 16. The fee per visitor is $4 per day, which includes camping. Campsite reservations are not accepted for groups smaller than seven.
For more about Rock Harbor Lodge, the only motel and cottage accommodations on the island: www.isleroyaleresort.com, 906-337-4993. Facilities are open until Sept. 5, then closed until late May. Rates start at $223 per day for a cottage without maid service; lodge room rates start at $230. Reservations are necessary.
For more about the Isle Royale Queen IV’s three-hour ferry rides from Copper Harbor, Mich.: www.isleroyale.com, 906-289-4437. Service ends Sept. 29, then resumes in mid May. Reservations are necessary. One-way fares are $54-$62 ($27-$31 for ages 11 or younger); a fuel surcharge may be added.
Ferry service also departs from Houghton, Mich. (it’s a six-hour trip), and Grand Portage, Minn. (three hours, but to Windigo, which is opposite Rock Harbor).
Trivia: Only three national parks get fewer visitors than Isle Royale. They are Gates of the Arctic (within the Arctic Circle and Alaska), 11,000 annual visitors; the National Park of American Samoa (a tropical rainforest in the South Pacific), 7,000 visitors; and Kobuk Valley (unusual sand dunes in Alaska, above the Arctic Circle), 850 visitors.
Note: Our visit to Isle Royale National Park was subsidized through Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation, which promotes tourism in this part of Michigan.