Trip Recap: Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park is located in northwest Lake Superior. It is a remote island, which preserves over 132,000 acres of land. The park itself is made up of one large central island surrounded by over 450 smaller islands. Isle Royale is so unique that is has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve.
One of the most unique qualities of Isle Royale is its biodiversity; there are only 19 mammal species on the island. Gulls, ravens, and an occasional eagle or osprey dot the skies; squirrels, toads, mice, and spiders move about the forest floor. Wolves and Moose are staples of the island’s interior.
According to the National Park Service, the ecological study of wolves on Isle Royale is the longest running large mammal predator-prey study on earth.
Our adventure to Isle Royale was like going back in time thousands of years. Roughly 11,000 years ago, Isle Royale was covered in over two miles of ice! This ice sheet gave birth to Lake Superior, as well as hundreds of inland lakes, ponds and bogs on the island itself. The Greenstone Ridge, which we climbed and which forms the backbone of Isle Royale, is thought by many scientists to be a portion of the largest lava flow on earth. These are just a few of the amazing features of this incredible and unique island, remotely positioned in northwest Lake Superior.
(IRNP information above from the US National Park Service)
It has been said that Isle Royale is the most inaccessible National Park of the 59 in the US. That’s easy to believe, as the only ways to get to the park are through ferries, which run only at designated times and days, and by seaplane. We took the Voyager II ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota, to Windigo, the main outpost on the western side of the Island.
There are no roads on the island, except for those dirt roads used by the Park Rangers for transporting things up and down the hill from the boat to the headquarters. Other than this building, we saw no electricity, no plumbing, and no sign of advanced civilization anywhere on the island until we got to a fire tower about halfway through our trip. More on that later.
The first day was a tired one. We (Katie, Mark, and Mark’s sister Hillary) drove from our homes in Indiana overnight to Grand Portage. The two-hour ferry ride over to the island was something of a blur to most of us. It was cold, quiet (except for the class of 5th graders who were there on a trip for which they had to write essays to participate), and foggy.
Sooner or later, there was a stir on the vessel and we realized quickly that the island was in sight. It was a majestic ride in to Windigo harbor. Nothing but prehistoric trees and small islands dotted the landscape. Fog obstructed our view in certain directions and gave a Hollywood-type feel to the surroundings. We knew right away we were in for a great trip.
We were met on the dock by a ranger who explained to us what the park rules were and how to stay safe in the park. Most people who travel to Isle Royale are experienced backcountry travellers - this isn’t the type of park you go to without extensive planning and preparation. Once you are dropped off on the park, there is no going back until the next ferry returns - sometimes three or five days later.
Our first night was spent at Washington Creek Campground, just a short hike north from Windigo.
This campsite was located on, you guessed it, Washington Creek, which ran northeast to southwest and connected to Washington Harbor.
Washington Creek had some basic amenities - primitive, screen door shelters, picnic tables, and even running water from a pipe about ¼ mile away from the campsites. There was no one around us for most of the evening.
We decided to take a day hike to test out some of the trails.
Of course, we were all very tired so this wasn’t going to be a long hike. Added to that, the first day was hot - very hot - so we came back and relaxed by the campsite early that evening.
We watched a spectacular sunset, as is fairly common in the National Parks, while fly fisherman casted for trout and the Park Rangers settled in for the evening.
We had been warned about Moose at the campsites - the moose know that the wolves on the island tend to stay away from humans, so they actually hang around the campsites at night when wolves hunt them. We did not see any moose this first night despite all of us keeping watchful the whole time.
We did, however, see some amazing stars and had more than a few good laughs before going to bed in preparation for the hike in the morning.
The first day was a 9-mile hike from Washington Creek south to Feldtmann Lake.
The weather was decent - warm again but tolerable - and we enjoyed the hike. At this point we were all still feeling a bit tired but the exercise woke us up in a hurry.
We made a climb up to the westernmost point on the Greenstone Ridge and got our first view of the island from a relatively high elevation.
The rest of the hike to Feldtmann Lake was spent quietly looking for moose in the brush. We had no luck spotting one despite the staggering numbers of the animal that inhabit this island.
The campsite at Feldtmann Lake was great. We chose a group site southwest of the rest of the campsites on this interior lake. After dinner, we finally spotted our first moose!
There was to be a big storm this night. We watched as the fog slowly and eerily rolled over the top of the water on Feldtmann Lake, towards our campsite. After the excitement of the moose (Hillary yelled “MOOSE!” as soon as she spotted it, probably giving said moose a heart attack as it fled through the water next to our campsite), we settled in to bed and listened to the intense lighting storm roll through the area. The closest lightning strike we observed was just over 2 miles away - an uncomfortable distance for anyone who is at least 5 hours away from professional medical attention.
The second day on the trail was just less than 10 miles from Feldtmann Lake to Siskiwit Bay.
If there was only one word to describe this day it would be wet. A second word - cold. Cold and wet, wet and cold. It was raining, misting, and/or dripping all day on this hike.
Our hands were frozen, our feet were soaked, and even the best raincoats and water resistant hiking pants could not stand up to the constant battering of water from all directions.
ABOVE: View of Feldtmann Lake from the Feldtmann Ridge to the south.
We were hoping to find refuge in the fire tower to take lunch and to dry out some of our gear, but it was locked and we had no such luck.
So, lunch was under a tree, where we shared some of the only dry real estate on the island with some spiders who were very curious about our bags.
We finally reached Siskiwit Bay during a brief lapse in the rain and mist. However this gap in one type of weather was filled by the presence of another - wind. Our wet, soaking bodies were now being pounded by an enormous wind coming from the Bay. Thankfully, we were able to set up camp without much issue, but there was no hanging out around the campsite this evening - we got as dry as we could and went to sleep right away. Had fires been allowed at this campsite, we would have build one as large as they come to dry out our clothes, our gear, and ourselves. There was no such luck. As we fell asleep listening to more rain and wind batter the sides of our tents, it was certainly one of the colder nights of our backpacking careers.
We woke on the third day to a welcome sight - sun. The sun was finally out after a full day of rain and cold, and even though it wasn’t warm, it was an opportunity to dry out some of our gear.
We took a few hours at the campsite at Siskiwit Bay to do just that, and also to fill up our water bottles and try our skills at skipping rocks across the Bay.
Our hike this day was a short one - 4.3 miles from Siskiwit Bay to Island Mine Camp. We were successful in making it quite a bit longer by loosing the trail and forcing ourselves to wade in knee-deep water, soaking our shoes and clothing which we took half the day to dry, before re-acquiring the trail to Island Mine.
So, even though it was sunny this day, we were once again cold and wet.
We were, however, ecstatic to learn that fires were allowed at the Island Mine Camp, and we built up a fire that dried out our shoes, socks, clothing, and warmed us up to a degree we had not felt since leaving our vehicle in Minnesota three days prior.
It was a great night by the fire, and we had a good time. We also met a large group at this campsite - the “moose patrol” - scientists (or volunteers) who were collecting information on moose populations on the island as part of a larger effort to study the predator (wolf) - prey (moose) ecological relationship on the island. They had been out there for over a week.
Our fourth day was a 9-mile hike over Sugar Mountain, west along the Greenstone Ridge, and northwest past Windigo and Washington Creek to Huginnin Cove.
We woke up, had our coffee, collected our finally-dry clothing and shoes, filtered some more water from a nearby creek, and headed out to our final campsite.
We were debating just camping at Washington Creek instead of making the extra 4-mile hike up to Huginnin Cove, but something told us it might be worth it to see one more campsite.
Whatever that was, it was right. This was one of the most unbelievable campsites I am aware of in the entire National Park system.
From the rocks on the north-facing harbor, we could see Canada across Lake Superior.
The waves crashed into the beach below, and as we ate dinner this night we knew we were in for another breathtaking sunset. We were right.
The sunset over Canada was, ironically, red, white, and blue. After the sun faded away, we set up the camera and portable tripod on the rocks of the Cove and photographed the moon reflecting off the surf and the many stars and bright planets that were visible during this time of night.
The sky was so dark here - not a city light anywhere at all - that you could easily see the dark side of the moon with the naked eye.
The Final Day
The fifth and final day was a short hike from our oasis at Huginnin Cove back to Windigo to catch the ferry home. To our surprise, the ferry had already came and gone without us, even though we were nearly an hour early according to our reservations. It worked out, as we found that the small shop at Windigo, which was not open for another month, was going to sell us beer and cigars, which we promptly bought and began celebrating our trip with another backpacker who was doing the same thing as us - hiking all the National Parks.