Isle Royale National Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

A tree-studded bit of land juts out into the water in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park.

Exploring Isle Royale National Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo © Ray Dumas, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike.

Stranded in the vast waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is perhaps the model of what a national park is supposed to be—wild, rugged, and remote. No roads touch the 45-mile-long island, and its only contact with the outside world remains ship-to-shore radio. One of the least visited parks in the National Park Service system, Isle Royale’s yearly attendance is less than a single weekend’s worth at Yellowstone.

Those who make the trek by boat or seaplane to Isle Royale come primarily to hike its 165 miles of trails, fish its 46 inland lakes, and paddle its saw-toothed shoreline.Civilization on Isle Royale (ROY-al) is concentrated in two small developments at opposite ends of the island. Windigo, on the southwest end, includes an information center, a grocery, and a marina. Rock Harbor, near the northeast end, offers the same, plus a no-frills lodge and restaurant across from the ferry dock, and a handful of cabins overlooking fingerlike Tobin Harbor. The rest of the island is backcountry, 210 square miles of forested foot trails, rocky bluffs, quiet lakes, and wilderness campsites.

Those who make the trek by boat or seaplane to Isle Royale come primarily to hike its 165 miles of trails, fish its 46 inland lakes, and paddle its saw-toothed shoreline. Wildlife viewing is popular, too, especially for the moose that swam across from Ontario several decades back, and the eastern timber wolves that later followed their prey across on the pack ice. Though the wolves are notoriously elusive, you can pretty much bet that your wildlife sightings will outnumber your human ones on Isle Royale.

The geography of Isle Royale is inseparable from the water that surrounds it. Along with its namesake island—the largest in Lake Superior—Isle Royale National Park actually consists of an archipelago of some 400 islands, all of them remnants of the same landmass. More than 80 percent of the national park lies underwater, beneath shallow ponds, bogs, inland lakes, and the clear, cold water of Lake Superior. And here’s some trivia: Ryan Island, located on Isle Royale’s Siskiwit Lake, is the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest freshwater lake in the world. The islands’ wildlife, especially the moose and wolf populations, have been a draw for many naturalists and tourists alike. Populations for both animals have fluctuated rather dramatically over the decades. Moose, which numbered more than 1,000 in 2002, plummeted to less than 400 in 2007, mainly due to increasingly warm summers, which caused the moose to eat less and fatal ticks to thrive. As of early 2010, the population has risen to more than 500.

Still, hikers have a decent chance of spotting the 1,000-pound mammals, which often feed in ponds and lowlands or along inland lakeshores. Hidden Lake, across Tobin Harbor south of Lookout Louise, is an exceptionally good spot, since moose have a taste for its mineral licks. If you’re lucky enough to come upon a moose, give it very, very wide berth. Although they look cartoonish and friendly, moose can be exceptionally dangerous if approached too closely—especially cows with calves or males during the fall rutting season—capable of inflicting lethal blows with their hooves.

The wolf population, too, has dwindled, in part because of hot summers and the lessening of their food supply. The wolves, which numbered around 19 in early 2010, tend to hide out in the remote southwestern corner of the island. Only the rare backpacker ever spots one of the shy and stealthy creatures, and many a wolf howl heard at night is probably the haunting call of a loon. But the notion that wolves are there, somewhere—perhaps even watching from deep in the forest—is compelling enough for most, especially those lucky enough to spot a paw print across the trail.

While many national parks struggle with their fate as islands of wilderness surrounded by a more developed world, Isle Royale has the advantage of a much larger buffer zone protecting it from outside encroachment and influence. As a result, it is one of the most closely managed holdings in the national park system. That’s good or bad depending on your opinion of the park service, but it does present some unique opportunities for protecting the wilderness. For starters, it is one of the few parks that already regulate the number of visitors who pass through their “gates.” Though logistics have done a sufficient job of keeping numbers down thus far, the National Park Service only has to cut back on ferry service or campsites to slow the flow.

Limited access also allows the park service to enforce rules more effectively. Dogs, for example, are not allowed on the island for fear they might bring rabies and other diseases to the island’s wolf pack. Arrive with a poodle on your powerboat—even if it never sets paw on the dock—and you will be quickly waved off the island. Thumbs-down also to wheeled vehicles like mountain bikes or canoe carts. (Exceptions are made for wheelchairs.) The park service also takes great pains to preserve its backcountry solitude, with a park brochure reminding hikers to “refrain from loud conversation,” “avoid songfests,” and “select equipment of subtle natural tones rather than conspicuous colorful gear.”


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Michigan.

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