Its Brightest Jewel

By paddle, pack or portage, Michigan's Isle Royale is a place that reveals its secrets slowly.


By Jeff Rennicke


From out of the darkness over Duncan Bay, a loon calls, a low sound shaped like the moon rising. It is early, a string of stars still tangled in the branches along the horizon, but out beyond the Narrows, to the east, the sky has turned the color of campfire coals. I lift the paddle once, sliding it silently through the dark water to turn the canoe toward the coming sunrise, and then drift, listening again for the loon. In the growing light the island slowly takes shape—the soft edges of the shoreline where the waves have been, small islands floating in the bay, the sweep of trees rising up to Greenstone Ridge. Like the lay of the land at sunrise, Isle Royale is a place that only slowly comes into view.

Set like a jewel in the ice-blue waters of Lake Superior off the northern Michigan coast, Isle Royale is our largest island national park. Forty-five miles long, nearly nine miles wide, it is a 133,788-acre swipe of rocks and trees, its spine rippling with ridges with names like Minong and Coyote and Greenstone. Inland, its interior can be soft with the edge of sugar maples and the silence of cedar swamps. At the edges, it is a ragged archipelago of dozens of small islands, wave-strewn and rocky. When seen from above or on a map, its narrow reach and wave-cut lines give the park the shape of a streak of moonlight on the water.

It can be a difficult place—difficult to reach (accessible only by ferry, personal boat, or float-plane service) and difficult to come to know. This place gives up its secrets slowly, if at all. Under a pack on a backcountry trail, it can hit you as hard as the sting of trail dust in your eyes. Alone in a canoe or sea kayak, it can seem distant and dreamlike. Piecing it together takes time and commitment. Fewer than 20,000 people a year visit the park—more people pass through the gates of Yellowstone on a single busy summer weekend—but the island has a loyal following. Some return year after year as if on a pilgrimage to paddle a new route or hike a familiar trail in a different season. Those who come here stay awhile. Although the average visit to the Grand Canyon can be measured in hours, at Isle Royale, it’s four days.

I’ve visited the island nearly a dozen times in 20 years—kayaking its edges, hiking its trails, canoeing its string of inland lakes—each trip adding a new piece to the puzzle of this place. Too often our view of our national parks is one-dimensional. We think of one park as a great hiking destination, another as a paddling paradise. But like a jewel held to the light, Isle Royale shines from every angle.

Blue Horizons: Isle Royale by Sea Kayak

Our kayaks move as easily as light across the water. After a windy morning, the lake has calmed, and four of us paddle out from our camp at Birch Island on the island’s northeastern edge. The southwestern part of the park is mostly unprotected shore, exposed and dangerous for inexperienced paddlers. But this northeastern reach is a series of deep bays and chips of islands among protected waters. The water is flat as dark glass, but my gut tightens anyway as we leave the protection of the cove and paddle into the open lake.

Lake Superior is a force, the largest freshwater lake in the world, so vast its outline is visible from space. Paddling such a lake gives you a sense of privilege, like hiking in the tracks of a grizzly. And Isle Royale is mostly lake. Its land mass would fit like a curious stone in a corner of more immense parks like Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias. But its boundaries extend up to four miles out into Lake Superior, meaning 80 percent of the park is under water and making Lake Superior as much a part of the park as the rocks and trees. To understand this park, you must understand the lake. A part of that story lies in the island’s collection of lighthouses. A part of the story also lies on the bottom. Ten major shipwrecks ring Isle Royale, which sits directly in the shipping lanes like a boulder in the doorway. There was the Kamloops lost for 50 years, the only clue a note left by the assistant steward: “I am the last one alive, freezing and starving on Isle Royale.” The Monarch ran headlong into the Palisades on the island’s northeastern corner; the brother of the second mate swung to shore on an icy rope to look for help. But the wreck of the Algoma claimed more lives than any other Lake Superior shipwreck, though it came to rest less than 100 yards offshore.

As we move out onto the open lake, the waves build, fueled by the wind and by the stories in my head. To a hiker from shore, the waves would be only scenery. Under our boats they build up huge and dark, tossing us in a rhythm that is almost musical. When the kayak ahead drops into a trough, it is lost from sight. When it crests a swell, it is like straddling a moving mountain. Still, this is what we’ve come for, to ride the power of the lake. For an instant atop one of the waves, I glimpse the rise of the island in the distance behind us, shining gold in the late light. Then, there is only blue as the next wave rises up to meet us.

The Solace of Silence: Isle Royale by Trail

The silence seems complete, as unbroken and smooth as the surface of the beaver pond. White and straight, the birches cast a picket-fence reflection on the water, their leaves so still they seem cast in glass. I slip my pack off, feeling the sudden coolness where the sweat has gathered between my shoulder blades, sit on a beaver-felled tree, and listen.

As the crow flies, I am only a few miles from the campground at Malone Bay with its ranger station and ragged edge exposed to the open lake. But the Ishpeming Trail winds through a maze of ridges that cuts the interior off from the shoreline like a slammed door. No place on the island seems as steeped in silence as the deep interior. As my breathing slows, I hear faint sounds—birch bark rattling, a raven wheeling overhead, a white-throated sparrow twittering in the brush.

The interior of the island is a complex landscape, a glacially clawed row of deep tangled valleys and ridges with names like Red Oak, Minong, Feldtmann, and the long backbone of the island, Greenstone Ridge. That topography divides the island’s 165 miles of trails into two main types. The short north-south trails cut against the grain of the ridges. What looks like a short hike from Malone Bay to Little Todd Harbor turns into long hours of rising and falling, as if on lake swells turned to stone. In the course of just a few miles the trail winds through cedar swamp and atop a windy ridge, through the flat, green light of a spruce forest, and beneath a canopy of sugar maples.

Then there are the longer trails. After a long rest, the miles go more quickly, and soon I reach the Greenstone Ridge Trail. It is like a ramp onto a superhighway. Eventually most visitors to the island find themselves at some point on the Greenstone, the boulevard of the island running its entire length. Still, there are moments of wildness. Stepping across a rock, I suddenly see a set of star-shaped tracks, sharp-edged and clear: wolves.

It is said that wilderness without wildlife is mere scenery. And the wolf is what makes Isle Royale more than just another pretty place. Moose abound on the island, the current population about 530. Wolves are far fewer, about 24, and as elusive as quicksilver. Still, they are the heartbeat of the island—a sudden movement in the brush, a sound far off and low in the night, the gnawed bones of a winter-killed moose, or even the sight of tracks in the mud.

I lose the tracks for a time across an outcropping of rock, imagining the sound of wolf claws clicking like knives against the stone where it crossed. I pick them up again on the other side where they leave the trail and break for the thick brush. For a long time I stand quietly in the silence. As my eyes follow the tracks deeper into the heart of the island, the interior’s deep forests and timeless silence suddenly seem even more wild.

Chips of Blue Sky: Isle Royale by Canoe

From under the overturned canoe riding on my shoulders like some overgrown party hat, I listen to the violin string whining of mosquitoes in my ears. (“There is not a single mosquito on Isle Royale,” commercial fisherman Pete Edisen used to say. “They are all married and have lots of children.”) Mercifully, I glimpse Wood Lake glimmering through the trees.

There is a special sweetness to the inland lakes, even more than just signaling the end of a portage. Out on Lake Superior, you hear the buzz of motorboats. On the busier trails, you meet strings of other hikers. But on the backcountry lakes, you can go for days with only the chips of blue sky reflecting in the water for company. No hiking trails lead to many of them. They must be earned by paddle and portage.

A string of quiet lakes known as the “Inland Lakes Canoe Route” bisects the green back of Isle Royale with the dot-dash of blue, a route used for centuries by prehistoric paddlers who came here as early as 6,000 years ago to fish, hunt, and seek safe haven from a storm. At McCargoe Cove, the northern end of the Inland Lakes Canoe Route, holes pockmark the ground where early miners dug for copper. Wave-rounded rocks were used as “hammer stones” to pry the metal free, so that it could be fashioned into spear points, ornaments, and trade items that eventually made their way as far away as Texas and Florida. Three waves of historic copper mining swept over the island before the paths again went silent and the wilderness flowed back in.

It is that wilderness that is most evident paddling the inland lakes. Ninety-eight percent of Isle Royale’s land mass is designated wilderness. It is not the echo-swallowing, weak-in-the-knees wilderness of some national parks. Here it is found in small things—the slap of a beaver tail, the shades of red in a merganser’s feathers, the tartness of wild thimbleberries on your tongue.

We get a taste of that wilderness while camping on Wood Lake for the night. I take a hike along the shoreline thinking back on all the trips I’ve made to Isle Royale over the years and remember a newspaper article written the day after the park was dedicated in 1946. “Yesterday, the state of Michigan …” the writer said, “gave to the nation, to enjoy forever, its brightest jewel—Isle Royale.” More than a half-century later, as I watch the last light flicker on Wood Lake, it is clear that whether by paddle, pack, or portage, this jewel still shines.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale is a park that is earned. The tempestuous crossing has been called “a vexatious problem” and “more of an adventure than the average individual cares to undertake.” That “problem” is solved for most visitors by booking passage aboard the 165-foot Ranger III (the largest piece of moving machinery owned by the National Park Service) for its five-hour, 73-mile voyage out of Houghton, Michigan (www.nps.gov/isro). The Voyageur II and the Wenonah out of Grand Portage, Minnesota (www.isleroyaleboats.com) and the Island Royale Queen IV out of Copper Harbor, Michigan (www.isleroyale.com) also offer service. Kayaks can be loaded as cargo on several of the vessels. One of the only national parks closed in winter, Isle Royale is open to visitors from mid-April to the end of October. Each season offers its own charms—spring is cooler with fewer visitors on the trails; summer is warm and often less windy for kayaking; fall is colorful with potential sightings of rutting moose and fewer bugs. Changing weather and chilly water make Lake Superior a challenge for boaters. Be prepared with proper equipment and experience. Canoeists should anticipate rugged portages; hikers should expect primitive backcountry camping. There are 36 campgrounds on the island for backpackers, kayakers, and canoeists. Free backcountry permits are required.

SIDE TRIP

Keweenaw National Historical Park

One cannot help fancying that he has gone to the ends of the earth, and beyond,” Henry Schoolcraft once said about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But from the mid-1850s to the 1920s, this was the center of the world for fortune seekers, and copper was king. In fact, “the U.P.,” as it’s commonly called, has produced more mineral wealth than the California Gold Rush. Although not as glamorous as gold, copper was a kind of everyman’s metal used in everything from pennies in your pocket to the wires that carried the first telegraph and telephone messages. By the 1860s the region was producing 90 percent of all the copper in America, a fact celebrated at the Keweenaw National Historical Park.

Located in Hancock, Michigan, a stone’s throw from Houghton (one of the launch points for Isle Royale excursions; see Travel Essentials), Keweenaw is an ideal place to begin your journey or bring it to a close. The park is divided into two main units—the Quincy and the Calumet—both once pulsing, large-scale copper operations. A good place to start is the Quincy Mine & Hoist Gift Shop just north of Hancock, which houses the Park Service visitor information desk. The Quincy site focuses on the working end of the copper mining story and includes mine shafts, hoist houses, smelting operations, and more (tours offered seasonally). Twelve miles north, just off Highway 41, the Calumet site interprets the cultural and social impacts of copper and life in a company-planned community where from 1890 to 1910 nearly 70,000 people lived and worked.

The golden age of copper has long since ended, but its Midas touch can still be seen in the local architecture, stories, histories, and artifacts of the Keweenaw area. From the Conglomerate Café (a great place to stop for coffee) to the many shops and museums with mining motifs, this is a place where copper will always be king. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/kewe.

Jeff Rennicke is the author of Isle Royale: Moods, Magic & Mystique and a teacher of literature and writing at Conserve School in Wisconsin’s North Woods.

This article appears in the Winter 2010 issue.

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