Lake Superior is the northernmost of the five Great Lakes. The largest freshwater lake in the world by area, it seems more like an ocean or an inland sea, measuring 350 miles wide and 160 miles long. In its northwest corner lies Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior. It is part of Michigan, 55 miles away, but even closer to Minnesota and just off the coast of Ontario, Canada. Its remote location and winter park closure makes it the least visited national park in the lower 48 states. Isle Royale’s total 2016 visitation of 24,966 people is less than the number of visitors that Yellowstone may get in a day. And only three Alaskan parks (Lake Clark, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic) received fewer visitors last year than Isle Royale.
The 571,000 acre park includes Isle Royale and 400 smaller islands and is designated as 99% wilderness. There are just two developed areas on the 45 mile long and 9 mile wide island itself: Windigo on the southwest end and Rock Harbor on its northeast side. The remainder of Isle Royale is comprised of numerous ridges and 165 miles of hiking trails along its coastline, forest, bogs and lakes.
There are only two ways to get to the island, either by seaplane or ferry. The closest ferry crossing is from Grand Portage, Minnesota, so we booked the 22 mile boat passage from there to Windigo. The ferry left at 7:30 am, meaning that we were up early in rainy weather to make our final backpacking preparations before boarding the Voyageur III. Along with us were travelers staying at the one hotel in Rock Harbor or at some of the cabins in Windigo, as well as a 20 person Boy Scout troop backpacking an island loop for several days.
Two hours later the ferry docked at Windigo. After the boat’s 40 passengers received a ranger orientation on the dock, most of them disembarked to either camp, backpack, or stay in the cabins. We and a few other people walked to the visitor center to pick up our backpacking permits.
We listed our planned itinerary with the ranger, and armed with our paperwork, we re-boarded the ferry. Upon request hikers can continue past Windigo to more remote island drop-off points. As the Voyageur III traveled along the northern shoreline, the rain subsided, giving us clearer views of the island.
After three hours, the ferry entered into an inlet and arrived at McCargoe Cove, located about 2/3 of the way down the island, or about 36 miles by water from Windigo. Ten people, including us, left the boat there. As soon as the backpacks were unloaded, the Voyageur III resumed its journey, having two more hours to travel before arriving in Rock Harbor for the night.
When we disembarked on to the dock, a NPS volunteer was present to answer any questions. I asked him about the trail conditions as the boat left. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that I was missing a water bottle from my pack’s side pocket until the ferry was gone. We still had several others, but I was frustrated that I didn’t check my pack more carefully when we first disembarked.
We had four days before our reserved ferry left Windigo for Minnesota, and we planned to backpack primarily on the Greenstone Ridge Trail. The longest trail in the park, Greenstone Ridge runs 40 miles along the island’s highest ridges from one end to the other. It passes several points with views of the island and Lake Superior, including the highest point on Isle Royale at 1,394 feet. We didn’t have time to complete the entire trail, but planned to cover about 25 miles of its total distance.
Along the island’s trails are designated campgrounds, with pit toilets, spaced out at about three to ten mile intervals. The sites at each campground are first-come, first-serve, but since we were there before the most popular months of July and August, we generally had our choice of campsites.
When receiving our permit we specified that we would spend our first night at McCargoe Cove, but after sitting so long on the ferry, we decided to hike 2.7 miles to the next campground on the west side of Chickenbone Lake. It was sunny and humid as we walked. We followed the narrow Indian Portage Trail out of McCargoe Cove, and soon we were walking along the edge of Chickenbone Lake.
Right way we found the trail to be muddy in places, making our hiking slow going. The mud also attracted groups of mosquitoes that hovered around us. We had decided to spray our hiking clothes, gaiters, and hats with permethrin before we left and were glad that we did, as we noticed a difference in the number of mosquitoes that actually landed on our clothes. Several spots on the trail had boardwalks installed, keeping us out of the mud.
As we walked along the edge of the lake we saw several frogs.
After a little over an hour of hiking we reached the campground at Chickenbone Lake. We found a site with two different tent pads and set things up on the location with the best view of the lake. As we were unpacking, Darren realized that he had forgotten our stove. Since it had been raining when we got up early in the morning, we had not bothered to thoroughly double check our packing.
We did have fuel, because I carried an extra canister. So we reasoned that if we could just borrow a stove from another camper, we could use our own fuel to boil water for our dehydrated dinners, making it less of a pain for them. Rather than have to borrow a stove for both dinner and breakfast, we also made the decision to make ice coffee each night before going to bed and reallocate some bars to eat for breakfast, rather than the oatmeal we had planned for a couple of meals. With this approach, we had little trouble borrowing a stove each afternoon, and actually were able to meet more people along the way.
As if losing the water bottle and forgetting the stove were not bad enough, we had another issue on our first day. While eating dinner, we saw two turtles walk by us. One of them went into the bushes, but the other kept pacing back and forth right outside of our tent. At one point he tried to crawl underneath it. We thought we had been diligent in checking the tent pad for any sign of animal holes, and had seen none. So we didn’t understand why the turtle wanted to be there.
We shooed the turtle away and thought we had seen the last of it. A little later we got ready for bed and went inside the tent. As I was sitting inside reading, I heard a noise and was startled to discover that the turtle had actually gotten underneath the tent right next to my sleeping bag. There was no telling if it would be back again, so we got up and moved our tent about 20 feet away to the other pad as dusk fell. We didn’t see the turtle after that.
After a good night’s sleep, we got an early start. The forecast called for rain, and my research told me that the day’s stage was regarded to be the most difficult of the entire trail. After a short steep climb, we joined the Greenstone Ridge Trail and turned west towards Hatchet Lake.
We hadn’t walked but a short distance when we heard a crashing sound to the left of the trail in the forest. There was a moose moving among the trees, but it ran away after hearing Darren open his camera pouch. Nevertheless, we hoped that seeing it was a harbinger of some better sightings to come.
The path alternated between dense forest and steep ascents to rocky plateaus. As we hiked inland from the shoreline, we also noticed the trees changing from a boreal forest of spruce and fir to more maple and oaks, which prefer warmer temperatures.
At the first of those plateaus, we began to see views of the island.
After about an hour of hiking, the rain began to fall, becoming hard at times. We kept hiking, but stopped at one point in a forest of birch trees to wait for the pouring rain to taper off. As we stood under a canopy of trees, we ran into two guys who were hiking in the opposite direction. We traded trail stories, and they took a picture of us.
The rain soon became lighter and we set off again, passing by some stunning flowers along the trail.
The trail became bushy and dense with ferns as we walked through another forest section.
After 7.9 miles we arrived at Hatchet Lake, in what we termed as a moderate day of hiking. Typical of all the places we camped on Isle Royale, the beginning of the campground displayed a map of the group and individual campsites, as well as the location of the outhouses. At Hatchet Lake we camped at individual site #2, with a partial view of the lake. Campsites also tended to have nice logs, making it a little more comfortable to sit while eating.
On day three of our backpacking trip, the rain had stopped, but it was a cold overcast day. Almost immediately the trail climbed to a plateau with another great vista of the island and Lake Superior. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were looking a lake and not an ocean around us.
We also saw several more beautiful flowers, a butterfly, and mossy forest along the way.
In the early afternoon, we had our first view of Lake Desor. We camped on its south side after hiking 8.1 miles.
Our campsite was a large area with a group of logs to sit on and a view of the lake. A steep path took us down to the water where we saw loons swimming by us.
It was raining when we woke up the next morning, and we took our time packing up in the hope that it might stop before we began hiking. At about 9:00 am the rain ceased. We quickly broke camp and got back on the trail. Because of all the rain, the trail was extremely muddy. My shoes became slick and it was difficult to walk without slipping. The path was also bushy in several areas, sometimes coming up to my shoulders.
The trail was not as steep, meaning that there were few viewpoints, but the lack of vistas were made up by the stunning forest scenery that we encountered as we hiked.
We made good time on the flatter trail, so decided to combine the final two stages into one to complete 11.3 miles and arrive at Windigo a day early. As we ended our time on the Greenstone Ridge Trail, the path steeply climbed down off the ridge to a sign announcing that we had arrived back at Windigo.
The large campground at Washington Creek had a waterfront site open, so we set up camp there. While I put up the tent, Darren walked a short distance to the Windigo store and came back with a bottle of wine for us to celebrate the completion of our 30.3 mile backpacking trip. Washington Creek turned out to be our favorite campsite, with a unobstructed view of the water and a picnic table to relax on as we enjoyed our wine and last dehydrated dinner.
With no hiking to do the next day before our ferry left at 2:00 pm, we woke up and had a leisurely breakfast. As we ate, we reminisced about our time on the trail and all the beauty we had seen. After that first moose sighting early on our second day of hiking, we had not seen another one, and were a little disappointed to be leaving without a clearer view.
As we talked, we saw a canoe go by with two people in it who had been on our ferry and were staying at the Windigo cabins. A short time later we heard another noise from the creek, and figured it was the canoe coming back the other way. We were stunned to see a female moose just a few feet away from us along the creek bank. We watched silently as she slowly waded across the creek. It was a magical experience for us.
Now fully satisfied, we broke camp and walked back to the visitor center to turn in our permit and attend a couple of ranger talks designed for the day trippers who had arrived earlier in the day for four hours on the island. We found the talks to be a great complement to what we had just seen over the four previous days.
One talk gave us some insight into the island’s history prior to becoming a national park in 1940. We learned that the Native American Ojibwe people populated the area up to 4,500 years ago. The United States took possession of the island from the French in 1783. Subsequently, copper mining and fishing took place on and around the island. By the early 1900s wealthy families from Chicago and St. Louis vacationed in the area during the summer months.
Another talk told us about the moose and wolves on the island. Both animals arrived on Isle Royale during the last hundred years, with the moose appearing between 1905 and 1912, and the wolves inhabiting the island in the 1950s. One theory for their population movement is that a land bridge would form between the island and mainland in the winter months. Today, temperatures are too warm to create the link to the mainland, making the ecosystem a closed environment. In fact, it is the only known place where moose and wolves coexist without the presence of bears. Isle Royale’s unique ecosystem also made it an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980.
The predator-prey relationship between the moose and wolf populations has been studied over the past 50 years by scientists. Every year researchers spend several weeks counting the animals by air. The numbers of both the moose and wolf have fluctuated during recent years. For example, in the 2006-2007 winter, about 385 moose and 21 wolves were counted; in the spring of 2008, approximately 650 moose and 23 wolves were tallied. The most recent count stands at about 1,600 moose and only 2 wolves, due to inbreeding issues. The park service is currently debating whether to introduce more wolves into the Isle Royale environment.
After the last talk ended, we boarded the Sea Hunter III ferry with the day trippers, our canoe friends, and the same Boy Scout troop to begin our journey back to civilization. As we pulled away from the dock, the sun came out as the rangers waved goodbye to us.
Even though we had a series of unfortunate events with our missing water bottle, forgotten stove, and turtle “encounter” on our first day, we so loved our time on majestic Isle Royale. Seeing the forest, flowers, vistas, and wildlife while backpacking was an incredible experience for us on our national park journey. As the ferry traveled back in the wide open inland sea of Lake Superior, we talked of returning to venture to Rock Harbor and perhaps hike some of the island’s other trails.
We will be going into the backcountry again at our next stop, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, as we explore the area by foot and canoe.