Up until this past weekend, I had seen two moose up close in the wild. One was a tame sighting from a canoe; the other, which wandered in front of the family car during a nighttime drive down the Gunflint Trail when I was young, may have been the closest I have ever come to death. This docile creature, seemingly part deer and part cow, has otherwise been an elusive presence for a resident of northern Minnesota. While a quest for moose is hardly a search for snow leopards in the Himalaya, they are part of the local allure, and a trip to Isle Royale seemed the perfect way to rectify this lack of large, furry, antlered beasts.
Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior. It sits some 20 miles off the coast of Minnesota and Canada, though it is a part of Michigan, leading those who come from the Minnesota entry to eternal time zone confusion. It is the least visited national park in the United States outside of Alaska. Over the past century it has gained some fame for its moose and wolf populations, which often move in relation to one another, though lately the wolves have preferred to wander off across the ice pack in winters and thrown the balance out of whack. The island’s folded rock is the geological twin of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, its length scarred by the glaciers that formed Lake Superior and created the lake-studded Northwoods that I call home.
After a year in which I kept up my travel pace largely by sacrificing companionship, I am eager to tread trails with other people. My fellow hikers, Connor and Alex, are new to backpacking but well-prepared for this venture. (We are all planners, after all.) Rarely have I been the experienced hand on my group hiking excursions, but as I relate tales of past excursions as part of the steady chatter that takes our minds off our feet, I realize just how much exploration I’ve done in my life. And though I’ve never been to Isle Royale before, it feels like home turf. When my companions, both St. Paul residents, ask me on the drive up if Lake Superior ever gets old, the answer is an easy ‘no.’ This realm is my playground, and these outdoor pursuits are among my fondest pastimes.
The ferry dock for boats to Isle Royale is in Grand Portage, the final settlement on Minnesota’s North Shore. With the Canadian border four miles to the northeast still closed, Highway 61 is quiet, and the settlement nestles sedately around a large bay. Grand Portage is home to an American national monument dedicated to French voyageurs, but it is primarily home for members of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, whose tribal headquarters are here, along with a campground, a general store, and a casino, which provides our lodging the night before the ferry departs. Randomly pressing buttons nets me $6.91 off the free $15 casino voucher I get for being a hotel guest. I consider it a win, though Connor’s haul dwarfs those of Alex and me.
The Voyageur II, our ferry, nears its capacity of about 50 for this jaunt across the strait that separates the island from the Minnesotan and Canadian shoreline. The boat heads first for Windigo, its western port of entry, which is the destination for my travel party and the vast majority of our fellow sailors. From there, it will ply its way around the island, with stops at a few smaller trailheads and an overnight at Rock Harbor on the eastern end before it completes its circuit back to Grand Portage. I pop my Dramamine and settle on to a rigid bench for the two-hour ride.
Isle Royale is not a complete and utter wilderness. A hotel still operates at Rock Harbor, and both Rock Harbor and Windigo are home to additional buildings, including ranger stations, Park Service stores, and bathrooms with actual plumbing. Small motorized vehicles putter about these entry points, seaplanes drone past with some regularity, and after a bad storm rolls through on our final morning, a chorus of chainsaws rings out through camp as the rangers re-open the trails. It would be possible to have a vacation here that is rustic but requires minimal physical exertion, and the day trip ferries, which resume service the day after our departure, no doubt add to the touristy nature of these outposts at each end of the island.
Most visitors to Isle Royale, however, embark on backcountry expeditions, the most famed being the 45-mile hike from Rock Harbor to Windigo across the spine of the island and the opportunity to canoe and portage across a chain of small lakes on the northeastern end. Our hiking loop is a standard 30-plus mile route for those who come from the west end. It begins in Windigo and circles its way counterclockwise through the southwest portion of the island, with tastes of everything it has to offer: inland lakes, Lake Superior waterfront, ridges along the central spine, an old mine, and, of course, moose.
The first day is an eight-mile walk from Windigo to Feldtmann Lake, which looks like prime moose habitat on the map. The trail follows Lake Superior for a spell and then clambers up a ridge with views of a swampy interior, which it then drops to and skirts on its way around to Feldtmann Lake. The trail here is tame and relatively flat, though the underbrush, thinner than on the mainland, is clear evidence of moose activity. Many balsam firs along the path seem stunted, with all the vegetation shorn from their lower branches and only some tufts of needles at the top, away from prying mouths. Later, a ranger tells us that some of these trees can be decades old, and not the saplings they seem to be, due to the constant nibbling. We come to Feldtmann Lake to find the best two campsites occupied, but settle for a respectable one just a short distance away from the lake.
Isle Royale campgrounds are unlike others I’ve encountered before. Often eight to ten miles apart, they are sparser than those on the Superior Hiking Trail or in other backcountry realms I’ve hiked. They make up for their scarcity with clumps of sites in marked campgrounds. My initial reaction to this setup is not one of great love: it’s hardly deep wilderness when there are five other parties within two hundred yards of one’s site, and yet since we are all strewn across our own distinct areas, the conviviality that comes with sharing a site with ten other hikers does not come as easily. Still, over the course of three days, we get to know two 40-something women from the Chicago area who are on the same route; a quieter couple is also on the same circuit, and a few others linger to chat here and there.
There is also some surprising variation in the amenities. Siskiwit Bay, which has its own very new-looking dock, features picnic tables at the sites, while several Feldtmann Lake sites lack even the rudimentary seating log common at deep wilderness camps. Of the four campgrounds we tour, only Island Mine has fire pits, and Washington Creek, a stone’s throw from the ferry dock at Windigo, is more of a collection of wooden shelters with single screened sides, with a few sad tent sites tucked behind them for overflow. Some of these variations are logical enough, but it makes every stop a new adventure.
Despite the lack of seating options, a strong breeze off Feldtmann Lake knocks down all the bugs on the first night and gives us a pleasant evening. We take our dinner a short distance away at the placid pebble beach of Rainbow Cove along Lake Superior. Later, back at the site, we deploy a wood-burning stove of questionable legality and stay up late enough to watch the stars come out. A thunderstorm hits while we’re still in tents the next morning, and after it blows over, I peek out of my tent for the first time and am immediately greeted by a female moose plodding past our site down the path. Success! I’m too slow with the camera to get a respectable picture, but I need not worry: a short while later she makes her way back up the shoreline, stopping to chew on plants, and a male friend follows her shortly thereafter. We take our time to admire them from as close a distance as we dare.
The second day’s hike begins with a placid wrap around Feldtmann Lake’s southern shore, the trail high and dry from the surrounding swampland on a short ridge, moose prints dotting the mud. We then charge up a steep climb to Feldtmann Ridge, which offers looks back over the lake and to Superior beyond, a series of false summits offering better and better views before we settle into a ridgetop plod, often in direct sun. Next comes a beaver pond and a gentle trickle of a stream before we come to a defunct fire tower that now serves as a lunch spot, where we meet an older couple heading the opposite direction and the Chicago area women, one of whom gracefully tips over her camp chair while holding a freshly reconstituted bag of freeze-dried chili. We clamber up the tower as far as we can for equal doses of pretty views and vertigo before continuing on our merry way. The trail descends into the largest birch grove I’ve ever seen, though it later degenerates into a buggy, scrubby, scorching hot swampland as we slog across the final miles to Siskiwit Bay.
Siskiwit Bay is a prominent bite into Isle Royale’s southern shoreline. A large vessel, perhaps from the Coast Guard, sits at anchor toward its mouth, and after sunset, a distant lighthouse blinks away. The two shelters are already taken, but we claim the best of the tent sites, open to the wind and with an access down to a small private beach. We while away the afternoon here and eat dinner in a shadier spot down on the main beach by the large new dock, where the pebbles conveniently rest in a seat-height berm. A picnic table at the end of the dock catches a strong breeze, and we stay out here as the sun plunges into the horizon. Our muscles ache and a rodent may have gotten into the cookies, but none of that matters. We are deep into hiking trip bliss.
The next morning dawns in brilliant sun, and we make much better time in breaking down camp. Beaver activity has made the trail impassable around the back of Siskiwit Bay, so we are diverted to the beach, and this next mile and a half, save for a mucky bushwhack to an inland bridge over the Big Siskiwit River, wraps along the shoreline. It is the most beautiful part of the hike. The lake glows golden in the morning sun, and the thick forest to our left keeps us on the straight and narrow path. A few crystal-clear rivulets make their way down across the beach and into the pristine inland sea. The Chicago ladies, headed just a few short miles to Island Mine on this day, are sprawled in chairs and soaking in the sun. I am loath to leave it, but leave it we must, and the next stage of the hike climbs some 800 feet upward, first through mud obstacle courses and then over a series of aggressive ridges that take their toll.
On this stretch of trail we get a window into Isle Royale’s human history. Called Minong by the Ojibwe, a word translating to “the good place” or “the place of abundance,” it was an early source of copper mining, and white settlers later returned for the same purpose. We pass an empty well shaft and a large pile of mining overburden, the remnants of a short-lived 1870s operation here on the hillside. Lunch comes at the Island Mine campground, a series of sites strewn across a low ridge of maples in a valley between two higher rises. We’ve been waffling on whether to spend the night here or press on to Washington Creek, but with our energy restored by lunch and a looming threat of bugs here and the need to be on time for a ferry the next day, Alex convinces us to pound out the last 6.5 miles.
We make the right choice. The trail from Island Mine back toward Windigo is a wide, gentle descent through a shady maple forest, its halls carpeted by a dense layer of blanched-out leaves from down the years. We pass a series of parties going the other direction, all fresh off the ferry and chipper; Island Mine will be crowded on this night. The Washington Creek campground, however, has several open shelters for us to choose from, and once again we choose right. As we laze about the site reading that afternoon, I glance up toward some stray movement in the thicket between our shelter and the next and see a male moose just a few feet from our site making his way down the steep bank toward the creek, which at this point is more of an estuary. We hustle down our own path to the water and tuck in to watch him as he plods about, munching at pond scum and shaking water back and forth off his antlers.
The moose show is only beginning, though. A short while later we pick out a mother and her calf, who cannot be more than two or three weeks old. They pick their way upstream, and, with some urging from its mother, the calf emits some near-human wails as it strikes out across the water to join her. Next, an interlude of amusing ducks and ducklings, which Connor calls the Greek chorus of our trip. Two more moose, including a large bull, wake us early the next morning, and a distant female downstream provides the final act. Mission accomplished.
Our travel plan again seems prudent when the when the storm rages across the island on our final morning. The Chicago women, who set out around 5:30 from Island Mine, report a terrifying hike down, with a tree falling next to them and the trail so darkened by the storm that they pull out headlamps. By the time they arrive in Windigo, however, they are free to share a very good story, and a few other familiar faces join us for a ranger lecture before the ferry collects us again. The boat ride back to Grand Portage is as smooth as possible, and Connor and I head to the bow to watch the green North Shore bluffs and Mount Josephine rise up to welcome us back to the mainland, a narrow band of undulating green between two rich, blue expanses of unfathomable depth. I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.