The author of best-selling mysteries set in the national parks visits Isle Royale in the dead of winter.
By Nevada Barr
Nevada Barr has written 14 mysteries that unravel in the national parks—a career that owes much to her years working as a seasonal ranger in sites such as Isle Royale in Michigan, Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, and Mesa Verde in Colorado. Two years ago, she visited Isle Royale again, in the middle of winter, to research her latest book focusing on the exploits of park ranger Anna Pigeon—Winter Study—which was published in April 2008.
Isle Royale is closed in the winter, and nature often shores up the Park Service decree by ringing the island with ice. No boats or sea planes are allowed to land. The bays are frozen, the trails deep in snow, and the island is given over to the animals for half of the year. The animals and the scientists, that is. And, in January of 2007, me.
I don’t know how others think of research scientists, but when I was growing up Jane Goodall and Margaret Mead were rock stars every bit as much as Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia. We followed their exploits in National Geographic and discussed their adventures in our classrooms. To me these were the glamorous lives. I pictured myself in baggy khakis and rugged shoes observing mice with Farley Mowat, diving with Jacques Cousteau.
Imagine my delight when I managed to weasel my way into just such a situation—and not sorting caddis fly larvae in Kentucky—no, this was the wolf-moose winter study on Michigan’s Isle Royale—the Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl of wilderness research expeditions.
Years before, I’d spent a summer working on Isle Royale as a seasonal ranger. There I’d met a man named Rolf Peterson, the lead researcher in the island’s long-running wolfmoose study (now 51 years and counting). I also heard tales of Winter Study, the weeks in January and February when the scientists came to live in the icy reaches of northern Midwest to better observe the interactions of these species.
Because of Jane and Margaret and Jacques and Farley, and because what transpired on “ISRO” in the dead of winter was mysterious and exclusive, for 20 years I’ve wanted to set an Anna Pigeon book at Winter Study. Not only did I crave the experience but, being a lover of the classics, how could I resist setting a mystery in this most magnificent of all Victorian closed-house settings? No one can get in, no one can get out, and people are being murdered. Ah. It doesn’t get any better than that for a writer.
Through the kind auspices of Rolf and Phyllis Green, Isle Royale’s superintendent, I was allowed to spend a week in the park with the study team.
Assistant Researcher Beth Kolb and I boarded a Forest Service plane that flies out of Ely, Minnesota, every eight days to bring supplies to the island. An hour later, we were deposited on the ice of Windigo Harbor along with cheese, wine, pasta, and fresh vegetables. Ice rimed my eyelashes, crusted the snow, made each step treacherous and honed the wind sharp as a razor.
I always thought of ice as dead water, a substance as devoid of intrinsic interest as a concrete sidewalk but as the researchers unloaded the plane I could hear it singing, a song like that of whales. Where the snow had blown away, I saw it was marbled with black lines. Iridescent pastels, so faint they seemed only a trick of the light, combined with sudden and sporadic clarity to hint at the depth of the water underfoot. Evergreens, black in weak winter sunlight through thin pearlescent clouds, ringed the harbor. Deciduous trees, stripped of their summer leaves, scratched the pewter sky with skinny clawed branches. The air was so cold it glittered.
Months later, writing in the warm lushness of a Louisiana autumn, I can wax poetic about this stark lunar beauty, staggering silences, songs of the ice and divine cruelty of temperature. There on the wind-scoured ice of Windigo Harbor, the cold cutting through the cumbersome layers of coat and hood and gloves and scarves that bound and blinded me, my greatest awe was reserved for the scientists.
The silly buggers were completely at home. They reveled in biting wind and scudding waves of pulverized snow. Rolf, Beth, John Vucetich, and Don Glaser did not simply put up with the hardships of isolation, subfreezing temperatures, minimal electricity, and no running water—they embraced them. They embraced winter. Beth told me it was her favorite season. Rolf, John, and Don savored the crunch of the snow and the bite of the wind, measured it, discussed it, compared it to previous falls and crunches and blows. Had they been wolves they would have laid down and rolled in winter for the sheer fun of it.
The whole of these scientists’ energies was focused on the study. I was as a woman without a country, without a religion and, sometimes, without a common language. Mornings, if weather permitted, Rolf, the lead researcher, or John, his heir apparent, took to the air for four hours as Don flew low and slow so the wolves could be seen and filmed or photographed. If the weather held, another four-hour flight was taken in the afternoon. Evenings were given over to revisiting the film, rehashing the sights, comparing them to wolf-moose activities in years past.
Beth spent the days hiking miles cross country through frozen swamps and woods collecting samples of wolf scat and moose urine and studying tracks left by the animals. Dinner conversation was centered on where the wolves had been, where they’d traveled in previous years, where they might be headed in the near future, which pack they were running with, who was alpha, who wanted to be alpha—all the juiciest gossip of a lupine Peyton Place.
After spending eight days immersed in this dedicated culture, dining with scat and urine samples scattered about, and realizing that a toilet seat warming behind the woodstove was our greatest luxury, I doubt that I will ever recapture the sense of glamour researchers once held for me. I no longer consider them rock stars, but they have joined that elite group where lunacy and genius come together to form a new order.
This ability to focus on a single subject with an almost religious fervor put me in mind of the old adage that says an expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less till he knows everything about nothing at all. This is, of course, untrue, but to the nonscientific eye the narrowness of these researchers’ obsession was wondrous to behold. Winter Study has yet to discover all that can be learned from the wolf-moose relationships, but I have faith it will one day be revealed.
Then, in celebration and camaraderie, I shall lean my head back and howl.