by Lee Foster
Isle Royale, our island wilderness national park, lures visitors both for its seen and unseen attractions. Everyone views the beauty of the Lake Superior landscape and the forest flora. Most visitors encounter some of the 800 moose that inhabit the island. But few visitors see the secretive 23 wolves (they are counted from airplanes each winter) that keep the moose population in check. The presence of wolves, however, heightens the awareness of a visitor to Isle Royale, not because of fear of attack on humans, which is infrequent, but because the visitor walks amidst this classic, stable ecosystem, where a wolf-moose equilibrium flourishes on a protected wilderness island. The wolf-moose balance is Isle Royale’s most spectacular resource.
The park’s mission is to maintain Isle Royale as a wilderness, partly because of the wolves.
Isle Royale, northern Minnesota, north central Idaho, and northern Montana host the 150 remaining wild wolves in the contiguous U.S.
Isle Royale can perpetuate a secure and enclosed ecosystem with a stable wolf population for the public to enjoy and scientists to study. As such, Isle Royale is the epitome of something working well in the National Park system.
The visitors who come to Isle Royale, moreover, do so with a purpose. They invest considerable time and money just to get to the park. Isle Royale is one of our least visited national parks. But once people get here, they tend to stay longer than at other national parks. Only about 15,000 people make the four-hour boat crossing from Michigan or Minnesota each year to Isle Royale during the May-September season when the island is open to the public. However, once they disembarked, either to the full-service lodge at Rock Harbor or to the 200 backpacking campsites, they stayed an average of four days. By contrast, the average stay in Yellowstone or Grand Canyon is merely four hours.
ACCESS BY BOAT
The 45-mile boat ride to Isle Royale is a prelude filled with anticipation. Concessionaire or park service boats cross Lake Superior, the largest (by volume) freshwater lake in the world, leaving from Copper Harbor and Houghton in Michigan, or from Grand Portage in Minnesota. The lake may be calm, but can also be black, eerie, and treacherous. The water in Lake Superior is exceedingly cold, hovering around 42 degrees in summer at the surface. Ten feet below the surface the water remains 34 degrees. A huge 300-foot iron ore barge, the FITZGERALD, sank in Lake Superior as recently as the 1970s. Indians called Lake Superior “big body.”
Eventually the island appears on the horizon, seeming to float, as the Indians described it, because you can see the top long before you see the bottom. As the boat pulls closer, you begin to appreciate that Isle Royale National Park is a main island and about 200 small islands in an archipelago. When this largest island looms before you, it’s easy to imagine why French mapmakers decided to honor Louis XIV by naming the place Isle Royale. The land became a National Park in 1940, mainly because it was a huge island with a forest wilderness.
The boat pulls into Rock Harbor. After an orientation at the Visitor Center, which is well stocked with descriptive literature and maps of the area, you either walk to the Rock Harbor Lodge or head out to a backpacking camp. The lodge offers comfortable rooms, a good restaurant, and rental of canoes as well as fishing/excursion boats. The park experience amounts to relaxed isolation, with no phones, no TV, no roads, and no cars. A lodge excursion boat, the SANDY, takes visitors around the island with a park naturalist on board. The park service and the lodge concession organize ways to approach the island by hiking, canoeing, motor boating, naturalist talks, and nature seminars.
EXPLORING THE ISLAND
With a map in hand, you can hike a half day from the lodge. The stroll out to Scoville Point is a good warm-up. The 170 miles of trails on Isle Royale are well maintained and extensive. The island is large, 45 by 9 miles, fully 572,000 acres of land and water. However, to journey out more than a half day from the lodge, you must be well equipped and possess adequate backpacking skills. Summer rains at this northerly latitude can chill when the night temperatures drop.
Everywhere there is much to see. The moose can be anywhere and are unpredictable. Moose may lurk around the lodge, but mostly they remain in the back country. Huge animals, they show little fear of humans, but the bulls can be feisty in the rutting period, September, and the cows will protect their young passionately in the calving season, spring. If wolves threaten a moose, the moose tends to enter the water. Deadly confrontations between moose and wolves occur mainly in winter because the wolves survive on alternative food supplies in summer.
THE WAYS OF WOLVES
When a wolf pack attacks a moose, they circle and rush in to slash the back legs. If the moose holds its ground, the pack will usually back off because the powerful back hooves of the moose can crush the skull of a wolf. However, if the moose panics and runs, the wolves will rip at its back haunches until the moose weakens from blood loss. Then the wolves pull the moose down. Wolves cull out the aging and weaker animals first in this classic survival-of-the-fittest drama. The density of wolves at Isle Royale is exceptional. Summer backpackers often witness the howl of the wolves at night, which chills in a manner similar to Sherlock Holmes’ HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLE.
The thrill of hearing a wolf howl is that it reminds you, as nothing else can, that you are in a wilderness. You are far away from civilization. You are dependent on yourself for survival. Wolves don’t attack humans, but they are out there. The howl has a stimulating and rejuvenating effect on humans.
The #1 wolf in the pack, the alpha wolf, researchers conclude, must make his howl the longest and loudest, partly to maintain his dictatorship, which is not benevolent. Why wolves howl is a fascinating question, with many parts to the answer. Wolves may howl to share information about a meal, for example. They may also howl for the fun of it.
Public interest in the wolves of Isle Royale indicates a dramatic shift in the way Americans perceive animals. The old idea of dividing animals into the bad ones, those with sharp teeth, and the good ones, the warm and fuzzy ruminants, is passing. Now the public supports the existence of sharp-toothed animals. Similarly, our attitude toward forest fires has changed. We used to suppress everything. Now we know that forest fires are essential for proper cyclical development of forests.
Moose and wolves may have inhabited Isle Royale at various earlier times, but neither existed on the island during the copper mining era in the 19th century. About 1900, several moose appeared, probably swimming across from the Canadian mainland 15 miles away. The population of moose periodically soared, then crashed, during the 20th century as they overgrazed the island. Moose have immense appetites, savoring American yew and balsam fir. Finally, in the bitterly cold winter of 1948, an ice bridge to the island from the Canadian mainland allowed a wolf pack to cross. Since then the wolf numbers have increased. Now the moose and wolves thrive together, dependent on each other to maintain appropriate numbers for both species to survive.
Red foxes, squirrels, and rabbits are often seen by summer visitors. Beavers are evident because of their dams, which profoundly affect the plant life and food supply, but these nocturnal animals are rarely seen. Pileated woodpeckers and smaller birds are abundant. The lake waters within and around the park teem with lake trout, whitefish, and salmon, culinary pleasures that should be indulged in at your campsite or in the dining room of the lodge. A harmonious commercial fishery has survived here since the 19th century, with one remaining small fishing operation, the Pete Edisen Fishery, maintained by the park service as a living history museum.
INTERNATIONAL BIOSPHERE RESERVE
In 1982 UNESCO honored Isle Royale with the designation “international biosphere reserve” because of the forests on the island. The island is a transition zone where you can find both hardwood forests, such as beech and maple, in what botanists call the Canadian Zone and pine forests of the Hudsonian Zone. Botanists love the place. They can find both plant communities here.
Wildflowers can be seen throughout the summer months. Thirty six types of wild orchids are one Isle Royale superlative. One rare plant, Devil’s Club, exists east of the Rockies only on Isle Royale.
When you look at a close-up map of Isle Royale or walk the trails here, glacial scraping of the terrain is evident. Glaciers moved northeast to southwest across the land, as recently as 10,000 years ago, combing the terrain and gouging out the rocks. The topsoil is thin. An informed observer will watch the process of plant proliferation here with delight. Lichens prepare the way, exuding acids that break down the rock. Junipers are among the first plants to colonize the rocks. Forests follow eventually, with the paper-bark birch flourishing in the bright sunlight. But beneath the birch canopy, the birch’s own seedlings won’t survive, allowing shade-loving balsam fir trees to succeed them.
Beauty can also be discovered here in small packages. The Michigan state gem, called greenstone, is distributed throughout the area. Look for greenstone at the beach below the Rock Island Lighthouse. The small green stone, which appears to have eyes, can be kept legally if found below water level. Searchers wade into the shallow water and lift fistfuls of gravel in search of this treasure.
The human use of Isle Royale is a fascinating part of the visitor’s experience. Aboriginal Indians, as early as 1500 B.C., dug surface copper on Isle Royale, heated the malleable metal, and pounded it into scraping instruments or sharp projectiles. The pits where Indians mined veins of surface copper are well known and are marked on the island. At the park service museum on Mott Island you can see some of these early tools, which were traded to Indians as far away as New York state. Metallurgists can fingerprint the copper artifacts easily, linking their origin to this region, because of the unusual purity of the element in the Isle Royale deposits.
In 1985 park service divers found a ceramic pot in 70 feet of water. Experts have dated the pot to about 1500 years ago. Probably it broke during a canoe crossing and was tossed overboard. The Indians that French trappers and missionaries met, the Algonquin and Chippewa, had lost all knowledge of copper use. Ben Franklin, aware of stories about copper in the region, insisted in the map drawing that the island be included in U.S. territory. In the 19th century several copper mines flourished on the island, as well as some logging, trapping, and fishing operations. (A Copper Rush drew prospectors to the adjacent mainland in 1843, five years before the Gold Rush in California. Copper mining flourished through the 1850s. You can visit the Delaware Copper Mine on the mainland.)
This is a good park for people who seek spiritual refreshment far from civilization. The mood of our population changes regarding what is wanted from National Parks. But Isle Royale, more fixed and isolated than other parks, will remain a kind of anchor in the park system.
Protected by water, the island flora and fauna experience little impact from the outside. Acid rain and other pollutants remain insignificant here at the present time.
The excursion boat SANDY makes an interesting circuit around the island, with a stop at the restored Rock Island Lighthouse next to the Pete Edisen Fishery. A dozen major ships, mainly packet boats carrying freight to the island, lie wrecked within the park waters, mandated to reach 4-1/2 miles beyond the shoreline. The bow of one ill-fated ship, the AMERICA, which sank in the 1920s, protrudes from the water. The park service now encourages sport diving at these wrecks, with careful stipulation that no artifacts be removed. Concessionaires organize the sport diving operation from Duluth, MN. The park service has even created an underwater trail at one wreck, the MONARCH.
If you seek a National Park getaway where wilderness is the experience, whether with the support of a congenial lodge or the solitude of a backpacking camp, Isle Royale would be a good choice.
Isle Royale is a special wilderness place that every American owns and can be proud of. Just knowing the wolves are out there, even if you never see them, is sufficient.
ISLE ROYALE: IF YOU GO:
For a brochure write the Superintendent, Isle Royale National Park, 800 East Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, MI 49931; 906/482-0984; www.nps.gov/isro.
Boats leave for Isle Royale from Copper Harbor and Houghton, MI, and from Grand Portage, MN. Contact the park service to take their RANGER III from Houghton. To take the ISLE ROYALE QUEEN from Copper Harbor, contact Isle Royale Ferry Service, Copper Harbor, MI 49918; 906/289-4437 summers and 906/482-0986.
The fastest way for an outsider to get to the Island is by major airline to Detroit, Chicago, or Minneapolis, then by Simmons commuter airline to Houghton-Hancock, MI, or Grand Portage, MN. The park service plans to supplement the boat concession to the island with a small commuter plane in the future.
There is one lodging option on Isle Royale, open roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day. No one remains on the island during the winter. The lodge is Rock Harbor Lodge, Isle Royale National Park, PO Box 405, Houghton, MI 49931; 906/337-4993. During winter, reservations for the following summer season can be made to: National Park Concessions, Mammoth Cave, KY 42259; 502/773-2191.
If you have a day on the mainland waiting for the boat, consider a visit to the Porcupine Wilderness area with a view of its Lake of the Clouds. Another interesting activity: Descend into the historic Delaware Copper Mine.