A return to Isle Royale
Eight lakes, Superior & a portaging marathon
Lying 60 miles out in Lake Superior from Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, Isle Royale National Park is 45 miles long and nine miles wide with 159 miles of hiking trails. In 1976, my wife Cyndy and I hiked on the island for 10 days, and our journal notes our sightings of dozens of moose, our hearing wolves howling on several occasions, and tasting thimble berries by the handful.
Instead of backpacks for our 2011 trip, we carried our canoe and three portage packs crammed with enough supplies for a 12-day trip. Leaving from Houghton, Michigan, on the National Park's Ranger III passenger ship, we made the five-hour trip to the park headquarters at Mott Island on July 26. From there we paddled Lake Superior along the island's south shore the five miles to the Moskey Basin Campground where we claimed a shelter for our first night. Most of the larger hiking camp areas have these three-sided shelters with open screened fronts in addition to cleared tent pads.
Seeing and hearing loons has been a part of almost all our wilderness trips, but never have we heard nor seen as many as we would this year. At Moskey Basin we were treated to loon whoops, tremolos and cries throughout the day and night. In the evening the hum of mosquitoes competed with the waterfowl concert as legions of the winged biters descended on us.
An ambitious course
Our route would take us to eight lakes plus a stretch of Lake Superior. To accomplish this we would make 15 portages covering nearly nine miles. Figuring that every portage meant three trips overland, first with two packs, a walk back, then over again with the last pack and the canoe, our portaging would total almost 27 miles.
The first carry - the 2.2-mile overland trek from Moskey Basin to Lake Richie - would be the longest and it took us four hours to finish the trek. Although nothing could be done to lessen the ascents and descents on hills, the trail crews have cleared deadfall, built raised plank walkways over muck and wetlands, placed log or stone steps where possible on hills, and dug small trenches to divert runoff from the path. I was told that the severe storms last fall necessitated the clearing of more than 4,000 trees from the trails and campsites, more than twice as many as had been cut during any previous year.
We secured the last tent site of the three at the Richie canoe camp. After setting up, fishing became priority No. 1. This weedy lake with its dark water teems with northern pike. At one point I caught seven pike on seven consecutive casts. Most of the fish were 20 to 23 inches, but I also managed to catch three ranging from 24 to 29 inches, and one of the latter became dinner. Northerns also became the main entree during our visits to Siskiwit and Whittlesey Lakes.
As we paddled about during our evening fishing excursions, we scanned the shoreline for moose. In the past, the population had risen as high as 2,600. Currently the herd is just a bit more than 500, an all-time low, and sightings are rare. The shortage is probably not due to wolf predation as there are only 15 on the island. For evening serenades we would have to make do with loon calls rather than wolf howls. However, during the trip we did see beaver, eagles, and herons as well as rabbits and the ever present campsite squirrels.
Our most unique animal encounter was with otter on Siskiwit Lake. On our third day, while camped on Wood Lake, we were paddling back when, as we rounded a shoreline point, seven otters appeared in front of us. All rose up, their heads and upper bodies out of the water, as they stared at us. A lake trout hung crosswise from one otter's mouth.
With a length of more than seven miles, Siskiwit is the largest inland lake in the Park. The south shore is mostly rock and scrub vegetation; natural habitat for blueberries. In less than an hour we picked three cups worth of the crop. For dinner Cyndy made a blueberry sauce which she poured over fresh-baked dumplings.
We camped on Whittlesey Lake our fourth night, having traveled through Intermediate, Siskiwit and Wood Lakes.
This trip would be remembered for the heat as almost every day the temperatures reached into the eighties and topped 90 degrees a couple times. To cope, we swam often. Although Isle Royale lakes are known for harboring good populations of leeches, if you move around and don't linger in shallow water, you'll probably not find any hanging off your legs. Cyndy discovered one on her ankle, but a coating of salt on the creature forced it to disengage.
Portaging out of Whittlesey, we launched into Chippewa Harbor on Lake Superior and paddled to an outlet. Following this meandering stream, we wove among thick mats of lily pads until it became impassable. Known as the Indian Portage, this 1.2-mile carry climbs up and over two ridges before ending at Lake Richie.
That evening we watched the sunset from a large rock near our campsite and talked with two researchers conducting a loon survey. Specifically they were counting the number of baby loons found on lakes on the east end of the island. The results were disappointing as they found significantly fewer than in previous years. Predation by pike, seagulls, eagles, cormorants, as well as high water flooding nest sites, may be contributing to the decline.
The next day we moved from Lake Richie through LeSage, Livermore and Chickenbone lakes ending in Lake Superior. The portages were easy carries ranging from a quarter mile to .75 miles each, with the last one following the hiking trail for 1.75 miles from Chickenbone to McCargo Cove.
A breeze cooled us on the water, but we cooked as we walked under a sizzling sun making us glad we pared some weight from our packs for this trip. Usually we carry about 50 pounds in each pack. They weighed just under 45 pounds this time. Cyndy left at home most of the produce she usually brings and some of the flour. Less baking and no pizza this trip but the cuisine was still first rate. Spicy soups with rice, pasta, cheese and pepperoni or sausage, made for good eating.
We camped on Birch Island at the mouth of McCargo Cove. Fifteen to 20 miles away we could see the rock cliff land mass known as the Sleeping Giant on the Canadian shore. The next day's travel involved paddling about two miles across Lake Superior with no islands or land masses to shield us.
Hoping to get through the exposed part of Lake Superior before the wind came up, we were paddling away from our campsite by 6:40 a.m. We felt vulnerable on the open water in a canoe. However, it was exhilarating to be out there. Within a half hour we were portaging into Pickerel Cove. Protected again by a near shore, we continued northeast to Lane Cove. It was here we had spent our first night on Isle Royale 35 years ago.
The hunt for berries & trout
In the afternoon we took a hike looking for thimbleberries. They were abundant, but unfortunately not ripe yet. During the whole trip we found maybe a dozen ready to eat. Mid-August would be peak season for this succulent berry that reminds one of a mix of strawberry and raspberry.
Sitting back at the campsite looking at a map, I noted that depths were marked for Lake Superior. Knowing that the lake trout had fled the shallower water about a week earlier I reasoned that I might find them at the edge of the first major drop off. A half hour later I was jigging a lure 80 to 100 feet, just off bottom. Almost immediately I received a strike and soon had a 24-inch laker in the canoe. The dinner menu was set.
The next day, following portages into and out of Stockly Bay, we entered Duncan Bay, paddled a short distance and set up in a shelter at the Duncan Lakeshore Camp. Returning to Stockly Bay, I jigged up a pair of lake trout. Landing at a nearby rocky island, we picked blueberries.
For dinner we went with lake trout and blueberry sauce over dumplings. Just as we finished, our stove began to falter. Luckily, Duncan Bay was the first site we encountered with a fire grate. Fires are not allowed on Isle Royale except at a very few sites established for boaters. Had this stove failure occurred earlier in the trip, we would have had to be quite creative at meal time.
We awoke at 2:30 a.m. to look at the stars. From the end of our peninsula we had a nearly full view of the sky. On this cloudless night and with no ambient light from cities to dull the horizon, every star, constellation and planet gleamed brightly in the inky blackness. An unseen moose moved somewhere in the darkness, its hooves making watery plunks and then, as it moved inland, the crack of breaking brush could be heard.
The portage out of Duncan Bay is a quarter mile uphill and sixth-tenths of mile down to Tobin Harbor. The guidebook rates it "extremely difficult." The reality was different. It was a strenuous uphill carry on a switchback trail, but not really grueling.
After a short paddle across Duncan Bay, we beached at the seaplane dock and portaged a couple hundred yards, the last part on asphalt, into Rock Harbor. Suddenly we were walking amidst buildings, hikers and lodge guests. We found a shelter, dropped our gear, and while Cyndy enjoyed a shower, I swam in Superior, which I felt was an appropriate way to finish the trip.
Dave Foley and Cyndy have taken nearly 30 paddle and portage trips into Ontario prior to this visit to Isle Royale.
Getting to Isle Royale
Though some visitors reach the Isle Royale by seaplane or private boat, most take the ferries. The National Park ferry, the Ranger III, departs from Houghton for the six-hour trip. The Royal Queen IV offers a trip lasting just under three hours and leaves from Copper Harbor on the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Passage also available on the ferry Voyageur II leaving from Grand Portage, Minnesota, for a 2.5 hour trip across to the island.
For information on park policies and reservations, check out www.nps/gov. Hikers and paddlers will find just about all they need to know about touring the island in Jim DuFresne's comprehensive guide book, Isle Royale National Park Foot Trails and Water Routes. (See DuFresne's story "Up for a 5-day hike on Isle Royale?" in the July issue.)