Isle Royale National Park

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Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park (Marinel-Miklja/Travel Michigan)
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In Lake Superior's northwest corner sits a wilderness archipelago, a roadless land of wild creatures, unspoiled forests, refreshing lakes, and rugged, scenic shores—accessible only by boat or floatplane. There are 166 miles of foot trails on Isle Royale and the island boasts numerous inland lakes. And for more seaworthy craft there is, of course, Lake Superior itself.

Isle Royale exists as an island in many ways. It is an island of wilderness and home to wolves in a modern world. It is an island in time, a natural space in which you operate on natural time and experience the rhythms of light and dark. Days are measured by footsteps, possibly under a backpack. Walking the island you are struck by its striated layout, its elongated forested rock and lake patterns that parallel its backbone, the Greenstone Ridge. The island, it seems, must have been forcibly combed from northeast to southwest. The surface scene you see from the island's heights is the product of 10,000 years of natural sculpting, soilbuilding, and plant-pioneering and succession. Back then—actually not long ago by nature's standards—the island appeared beneath glacial ice, rising as the lake level dropped. The island developed soil and was colonized by plants and animals. Its many inland lakes first formed, in basins gouged out by glaciers, and then began to shrink, as lakes and ponds inevitably do. Beneath the ponds, the forests, and the light soil covering, however, is a story that must be told not in increments of centuries, but by millions and billions of years. The ridge-and-trough pattern of the rocks is the work of millions of years, pre-dating even the formation of Lake Superior and its islands.

The story began some 1.2 billion years ago with a great rift in the earth's crust that may have extended from here southward all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. As this series of cracks poured forth molten lava covering thousands of square kilometers, the land along the rift zone sank to form the Superior Basin, which has shaped all subsequent geological events in the region. The rock record of this cataclysmic happening—the volcanics, sandstones, and conglomerates—forms Isle Royale's bedrock today. Clues to the island's past abound. Smoothed, rounded, and even grooved rock belies the crushing power of the last major glaciation, known as the Wisconsin. It ended here only a few thousand years ago. On the southwestern part of the island, where this glacier paused in its retreat, are small linear hills made of its deposits. On the Stoll Trail out toward Scoville Point you pass three small pits in the rock. These form another clue, a clue to the Indians who mined copper on the island. The Indians came to the island only in mild seasons, taking what resources they could, and leaving before winter. The Indians mined here by about 2000 B.C., continuing for 1,000 years, and Isle Royale and Superior area copper made its way by trade as far as New York, Illinois, and Indiana. Indians were probably most active here from 800 to 1600. By the 1840s, the only Indian encampments white miners encountered were a maple sugaring camp on Sugar Mountain and a seasonal fishing camp on Grace Island.

Aquatic environments abound both on and around the island. In fact, some 80 percent of the national park is underwater, as shallow warm water ponds, streams, and rivers, and the deep, cold, foreboding Lake Superior waters. Commercial fishing has been one of the mainstay economic activities on the island throughout historic times. It began before 1800, to feed the fur traders. Since about 1840, it has been a largely individual enterprise. The major economic species were lake trout, whitefish, and herring lurking in the range of water depths and bottoms along kilometers of Isle Royale shoreline. Most of the commercial fishing enterprises had closed by mid-century; that world is now preserved by the historic Edisen Fishery and programs conducted by the National Park Service. Sportfishing has now replaced commercial fishing. Species sought are lake, brook, and rainbow trout; northern pike; walleye; and the yellow perch. Spring and fall produce the biggest catches, but fishing is considered good throughout the season.

Isle Royale's animal life also expresses its island nature. In the recent past, both wolf and moose have come in search of better hunting and browsing grounds, as recounted in this folder. Other animals you might expect here are missing, however, although it is but 15 miles to the Canadian shores where they are found. But even what is missing, like the black bear and white-tailed deer, somehow enriches the sense of Isle Royale's wild solitude.

Isle Royale is indeed an island of superlatives for wilderness and beauty. Or how about this superlative? Siskiwit Lake's Ryan Island is the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest freshwater lake in the world! You will find your own superlatives here as you meet the island on its own terms: fishing, boating, hiking, backpacking, taking a guided interpretive walk or hike, or just relaxing, which are what vacations are for.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 12 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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