"You look so young," my wife said with a hint of nervousness in her voice. We were aboard a Cessna 206 amphibious seaplane preparing to take off from the Houghton County Memorial Airport in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.
"I’ve been flying for 19 years; 13 of those were with the Navy taking off and landing on aircraft carriers," explained our pilot, John Safstrom from Duluth, Minnesota.
That helped to put our minds at ease. My wife and I had booked a 70-mile flight across Lake Superior to Isle Royale National Park; a wilderness archipelago world renowned for its wolves, moose, rugged shorelines, and treasured isolation.
Just 30 minutes later our plane touched down on the calm waters of Tobin Harbor near the southeastern end of the 132,018-acre park. This part of Isle Royale is made up of long narrow fingers of land, numerous small barrier islands, rock-bound reefs, and hidden coves. Several rustic cabins built prior to the park’s establishment in 1940 still remain along the shoreline of Tobin Harbor. The federal government granted leases to private landowners like Westy Farmer allowing him to stay there for life plus 20 years, and then the cabin had to come down. Some families legally transferred the property’s ownership to their youngest child. Farmer’s cabin is gone today, but another family was seen relaxing with their feet up on the porch railing when we cruised by their place.
A Detroit newspaper reporter named Albert Stoll led the crusade to preserve Isle Royale as a national park. He was in attendance at the dedication ceremony in 1946. Stoll has a trail named in his honor that leads from the Rock Harbor Lodge out to Scoville Point.
Isle Royale annually attracts close to 18,000 nature lovers itching (there are a few mosquitoes and black flies) to hike the 165 miles of foot trails providing access to 36 campgrounds. The main island is 45 miles long and 9 miles wide with about 400 smaller islands surrounding it. Pleasure boaters, canoeists, kayakers, and sightseers enjoy venturing into the many protected harbors, channels, and coves. Almost all of the park’s 850 square miles are now federally designated wilderness areas.
This roadless sanctuary is a backpacker’s paradise; however, if you prefer more comfort, the Rock Harbor Lodge rents rooms with private baths and housekeeping cabins. A dining room, store, and visitors’ center are all found tucked in around Snug Harbor on the east end of the Rock Harbor channel.
Moose swam to the island in the early 1900s. They feasted on the bountiful vegetation allowing their population to grow unchecked until about 1950 when a few wolves migrated over on an ice bridge that formed from Canada. This set up a unique predator/prey relationship that has been continuously studied by scientists since 1959.
Dr. Durwood Allen of Purdue University led the investigation of Isle Royale’s wolves and moose until 1975 when he turned the project over to Dr. Rolf Peterson who had begun working under Allen as a graduate student five years earlier. Peterson, now a retired professor from Michigan Technical University and his wife Candy have spent the last 36 summers on Isle Royale living in a rustic cabin near the Rock Harbor Lighthouse.
Candy Peterson greeted us when we arrived at her doorstep. We were "in the neighborhood" when the M.V. Sandy, an excursion boat, dropped us off to tour the Edisen Fishery and the nearby Rock Harbor Lighthouse just a 10-minute hike from the Peterson’s cabin. She graciously showed us their "Mooseum of Pathology", a collection of hundreds of moose bones, skulls, and antlers. They have been gathered over the years by Earthwatch volunteers who scour the backcountry in search of moose carcasses that are analyzed by researchers.
A small team of scientists and their pilot spends about six weeks in the winter conducting aerial surveys to count wolves, estimate the number of moose, and to observe the interactions between the species.
At the Edisen Fishery, the National Park Service has hired an old commercial fisherman to keep the tradition of gill netting alive. A visit to this historic fishing camp will show you how lake trout and whitefish were caught years ago. Part of the catch is used to supply the island’s restaurant.
Rock Harbor Lighthouse was constructed in 1855 to safely guide boats in and out of the harbor. The light was extinguished after only 24 years of service when the copper mining boom ended in 1879. The keeper’s house has now been turned into a maritime history museum.
The next morning, we paddled a canoe from the lodge over to enchanting Raspberry Island. In the 1800s, miners burned off all of the vegetation to make it easier to get at the copper that was found there. Raspberries were the first pioneer plants to establish themselves after the miners left. White spruce and balsam fir, characteristic of the boreal forest, have since reclaimed the landscape. Day hikers will enjoy the discovery of carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews growing along a boardwalk through a small bog, while a rugged and inspiring shoreline is found just beyond the forest’s edge. Raspberry Island provides remarkable ecological variety in a small package.
Another sightseeing excursion on the M.V. Sandy brings tourists to Passage Island. Situated three miles off Blake Point —Isle’s Royale’s eastern-most tip, this remote outpost is the site of the Passage Island Light.
We entered the island’s protected harbor through a narrow inlet and docked next to an old boathouse. A mile-long hike through the woods and up a fairly steep trail leads to the lighthouse. No moose have ever been present on Passage Island resulting in very dense vegetation. Some plants unique to this far eastern part of the archipelago include Canada yew, devil’s club, tag’s alder, and monk’s hood.
The weather in northern Lake Superior can be very unforgiving. In November of 1883, the keeper of the Passage Island Light bid his family farewell and took his boat to the mainland to pick up some supplies. Cold temperatures came on quicker than anticipated, and he was unable to return to the island until the following spring. His wife and three children survived the entire winter eating only the fish and snowshoe hares that they were able to catch.
The Ranger III was docked in Snug Harbor by the time we returned in the late afternoon. Owned by the National Park Service, this 165-foot ferry operates out of Houghton making the six-hour voyage
to Rock Harbor twice a week. Other ferries provide transportation from Copper Harbor, Michigan, and Grand Portage, Minnesota.
After a hearty breakfast in the dining room, I hung out around the harbor watching the Ranger III prepare for departure. Dockworkers were busy lifting a kayak onto the deck with the boat’s crane. Others wheeled carts filled with backpacks and duffle bags into the cargo holds. Then, right on schedule, the boat slowly backed out of the harbor with a load of happy campers and island visitors. I soaked in the moment trying to record as many memories as I could with my cameras. Isle Royale National Park had provided the perfect wilderness getaway. I’m itching (there are a few mosquitoes and black flies) to plan a return visit soon.
This story appeared in the
October 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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