Isle Royale National Park: Crossing the Water

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We had set our alarms for 6:30am Monday morning, but we were all awake before that, particularly early riser, Phil, who had scouted out a source of coffee before the rest of us were out of bed.

We locked what we were leaving behind in the trunk of Phil’s car. Adam and Sean parked it in the ferry lot while Phil and I waited on the dock with the packs, watching the folks assembling for the passage to Isle Royale.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The ferry is an officially sanctioned concessioner of Isle Royale National Park, run by the Kilpela family of Copper Harbor for almost forty years. Our captain was Don Kilpela, who announced that they were running behind because his brother was under the weather. The first mate/snack bar operator was Don’s nephew.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Soon we were aboard and underway, on what was an extraordinarily calm Lake Superior, for the over three-hour crossing to Rock Harbor.

Image: Sean M. Santos

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Passing Copper Harbor Lighthouse

The Keweenaw recedes behind us.

A Boy Scout troop was on board with us, as were various backpackers and lodge guests whom we would reencounter while we were on the island, notably a sixty-something couple, the husband of whom was taking photos of the back of the ferry with his iPad, much to Adam’s and my amusement.

The Queen‘s journey is fifty-four miles, and there is a period right in the middle of the passage when no land is visible. Then Isle Royale is barely visible as a dark touch of turquoise on the horizon.

Image: Sean M. Santos


We approached the island through Smithwick Channel, between the barrier islands of Smithwick Island and Raspberry Island, the most direct route into the small natural harbor at Rock Harbor.

The buildings of Rock Harbor Lodge

The ferry dock at Rock Harbor, with the Rock Harbor Visitor Center

We docked at Rock Harbor around 11:40am. As we disembarked, lodge guests were told to meet outside the visitor center for orientation, while backpackers were told to wait at the end of the dock for orientation by Ranger Liz. The passengers split about 50/50 between the two groups. Ranger Liz, standing on a crate, welcomed us to Isle Royale, explained the procedures for receiving a free backcountry camping permit, and that we’d have to register a planned itinerary.

Although the island is ninety-eight percent wilderness, the Park Service greatly discourages bushwacking or camping away from designated sites, partly because it is exceptionally difficult to do so in the dense Isle Royale forest, but also because the soil on Isle Royale is extremely thin. Particularly on the northeast end of the island, where we were, the retreating glacier laid down only a thin layer of sediment on the underlying volcanic basalt, causing the root structures of many of the trees and other plants to be extremely shallow, and exceptionally fragile.

Ranger Liz also went over the seven Leave No Trace practices particular to Isle Royale:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

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