A Superior Voyage

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Highways and Byways, Day 15:  Isle Royale National Park

Yesterday we left Duluth and our wonderful Lake Avenue restaurant behind, heading up Minnesota's busiest road, MN-61.  Known as the North Shore Scenic Byway, the highway follows the coast of Lake Superior from Duluth to the Canadian border.  Along the way we stopped to search for letterboxes at a couple of state parks.  In Gooseberry Falls State Park, we found lots of visitors escaping the day's heat (high temp 90°) in the cool waters of the falls, the perfect distraction while we located a letterbox nearby.

Middle Gooseberry Falls
But our primary purpose in driving up the byway lay near the end of the road—Isle Royale National Park.  Part of the national park system since 1940, Michigan's only national park embraces the rugged, isolated main island of Isle Royale and 450 smaller islands and the waters surrounding it.  Due to extreme winter weather conditions, the park is open only from mid-April to the end of October.  It is a remote wilderness, a road-less haven, reachable only by boat or floatplane.


Although it is technically a part of Michigan, Isle Royale lies only 15 miles from the Minnesota shore.  It's six hours by ferry from the Michigan UP, which means you either have to book a room at the single lodge on the island or camp.  We opted to take the day trip ferry from Grand Portage, MN, which takes only 1.5 hours each way.

Hat Point Marina
Since this trip was less flexible than our usual agenda, we made advance reservations to ride the ferry to Isle Royale today. Rising early, we left our hotel in Grand Marais before 7 a.m. to make the 40-mile drive to the Hat Point Marina in Grand Portage, where we would catch the ferry.  Fortunately that left us a cushion of a few minutes because we apparently blinked and passed by the "marina" without recognizing it.  When the end of the road loomed, we figured out our mistake and reached the boat in plenty of time.

Passengers were called by name to board the ferry and select a seat, which turned out greatly in our favor.  By the time we boarded, near the end, all the seats were filled except the exterior seating on the sides of the boat.  Once we were underway, we quickly realized that these were the best seats on the boat—great views without the wind or spray in our faces.  The lake was nice and calm today, eliminating any potential problems with motion sickness, which the crew told us could get pretty bad when things are choppy, apparently a fairly frequent condition.

To stretch our 15-mile journey into an hour and a half, we paused at a couple of places along the way including the Little Spirit cedar tree.  With an estimated age of more than 400 years, the scrappy little evergreen defies the odds, clinging to a rocky cliff on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation.  Believed by the Ojibwe to harbor evil spirits bent on endangering canoes that passed too closely, the tree is also known as the 'witch tree.'  In times past, offerings to the spirits were left at the base of the tree to ensure safe travels.

Little Spirit
Another pause on our trip occurred near the wreckage of an 185-ft steam ship that carried supplies and passengers between Minnesota, Isle Royale and Canada before sinking in 1927.  The bow of the ship can be seen just below the surface of Lake Superior, yet its stern is more than 90 feet deeper.  The wreck is a popular site for divers.  Fortunately we did not suffer a similar fate and arrived at the village of Windigo on the western end of Isle Royale with no incidents.

Ranger Katie and Ranger Cindy greeting visitors
With its location on an isolated island, Isle Royale is one of the least visited national parks.  However, according to Ranger Cindy, the park has the highest rate of return visitors of any park.  "In fact," she informed us, "I first came to the park as a visitor myself."  After we split into two groups of day trippers and campers, the rangers provided a brief orientation to the park.  We checked in at the visitor center and decided to pass on the ranger-led nature activities in favor of a four-mile hike and picnic on the Feldtman Lake Trail.

Feldtman Lake Trail
Mostly shaded, the trail skirted the harbor and wound through the boreal forest.  Plant life was abundant with carpets of bunchberry, moss and lichen decorating rocks and trees, and lush ferns often lining the trail.  At times we waded through waist-high thimbleberry as we made our way on the narrow trail, thankful that no deer lived on the island to populate it with ticks.

Our hopes of seeing some of the island's population of 750 moose were dashed as we hiked along encountering nothing larger than chipmunks and insects.  Because they live in a contained environment on this island, the predator-prey relationship of Isle Royale's wolf and moose populations has been the subject of an ongoing study for more than 50 years.  The first moose migrated to the island in the early 1900s, swimming the 15 miles from the Canadian mainland.  Voracious eaters, the moose population waxed and waned as they destroyed their food supply and periodic fires stimulated new growth. Then in a particularly cold winter in the 1940s, wolves crossed an ice bridge from Ontario to the island.  Over the years the populations of each species has fluctuated significantly, according to the study.  Researchers are concerned today about the survival of the wolf population, which is now down to nine from a high near 50 fifteen years ago. 

Rock of Ages Lighthouse, Lake Superior
On our return trip to Grand Portage, the ferry stopped near Rock of Ages lighthouse.  Guarding ships against one of the most extensive reefs on the Isle Royale archipelago, the lighthouse was built in 1908 after numerous ships fell prey to these reefs during storms.  From its beginning until it was automated in 1978, the light was manned by Coast Guard keepers who would land there at the beginning of shipping season in the spring and remain until the season ended in fall.  One can only imagine what a lonely existence this remote assignment must have been.

While we were hiking on Isle Royale, we encountered an interesting fellow hiker from the Cumberland Gap area of Virginia.  An avid hiker and traveler, Kenny has made it a mission to visit all the national parks in the 48 states.  As of this morning, he had but two remaining—Isle Royale and Voyageur National Park in International Falls.  Many of the parks he has visited more than once, and without hesitation he named Glacier National Park in Montana as his favorite.  With that kind of expertise, he sealed Glacier's spot on our list of places to visit in Montana later this year.

Isle Royale Stats:
  • Location:  Lake Superior
  • Part of:  Michigan
  • Length:  45 miles
  • Width:  9 miles
  • Annual Visitors:  15,793 (2010)
  • Population:  0 humans, 9 wolves, 750 moose
  • Day trip visitors today:  67 
More Photos from Isle Royale
Dock at Windigo village, Isle Royale
An automated ship warning system on one of the smaller islands, powered by solar energy.
Bunchberry, a ground cover from the dogwood family
Threading through the thimbleberry
Hovland, MN
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on the scenic byway
The moon over Lake Superior