Isle Royale National Park: Planning

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Unique among the national parks, the mere facts of Isle Royale create an evocative and compelling portrait:

Forty-five miles long, it is the largest island in the largest freshwater lake (by surface area) on earth. Its backbone, the Greenstone Ridge, was formed by the largest single lava flow on the planet, exposed by the glacier that melted to form Lake Superior.

With 16,000 annual visitors, the sixty-one year-old national park is the least-visited in the contiguous United States, and the fourth-least visited in the entire system. The only parks that see fewer annual visitors lie above the Arctic Circle or on American Samoa. An oft-quoted figure is that fewer people visit Isle Royale in an entire year than visit Yosemite or Grand Canyon in a day. It is only accessible via ferry or sea plane. It shuts down completely between October and April.

Designated a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, ninety-eight percent of the park is wilderness area.

Famous for its moose (which swam to Isle Royale from the mainland in the early years of the twentieth century) and for its wolves (which crossed an ice bridge from Ontario in the late 1940s), it boasts only a handful of mammal species: snowshoe hares, red squirrels, river otters, beavers, deer mice, bats, foxes. It is either inhospitable or inaccessible to deer, caribou, rats, and bears.

As a native Michigander, I felt that Isle Royale was the ideal park to launch this ambitious project. I spent six days in the park with my partner, Sean, and buddies, Adam and Phil.

This is the first in a series of posts about the trip.

In planning for Isle Royale, our first impulse was to hike the length of the Greenstone Ridge Trail from Rock Harbor on one end to Windigo on the other. We also wanted to take the ferry Ranger III from Houghton, Michigan because it is operated by the National Park Service and not a concessioner. Almost immediately, we realized that this plan was more complicated than we had thought. Ranger III‘s journey to the island takes six hours, and it only goes out and back twice a week. In order to take Ranger III over, hike the trail, catch the Voyageur II (which sails out of Grand Portage, Minnesota, and then circumnavigates the island) back to Rock Harbor and then take Ranger III back to Houghton would require that we each take almost two weeks off work.

Too much.

So we looked to the Isle Royale Queen IV, which in August operated a daily three-hour one-way ferry from Copper Harbor, Michigan at the tip of the Keewenau Peninsula.

Still, though nor for lack of trying, we couldn’t create a reasonable itinerary that would allow for Adam and Phil to drive from Detroit to Chicago, and then all of us drive to Copper Harbor, ferry over to Rock Harbor, hike the trail to Windigo, ferry back to Rock Harbor, ferry back across the lake, drive back to Chicago, and then send Phil and Adam on to Detroit in one week. No matter how we did it, the trip would involve at least one day of fifteen-mile forced march, and then twiddling our thumbs at one end of the island or the other.

So, we ultimately decided to take our time on the northeast end of the island and leave the Greenstone Ridge challenge for another trip. We chose the second week in August for the trip, and began to assemble supplies.

As the time approached to book our ferry passage, hotel rooms, etc., Sean discovered a work conflict, which pushed the trip back a week. It would turn out to be the first of many happy, plan-changing circumstances.

Ultimately, the final plan went like this:

  • Saturday: Phil and Adam drive to Chicago and stay overnight with us.
  • Sunday: drive together to Copper Harbor and stay overnight.
  • Monday, 8am ferry to Rock Harbor, near Isle Royale’s northeast end.
  • Monday – Friday: backpacking through the back country.
  • Friday night: stay at Rock Harbor Lodge.
  • Saturday: 2:45pm ferry back to Copper Harbor, begin drive south.
  • Sunday: continue on to Chicago, and then Phil and Adam return to Detroit.

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