Across Isle Royale by Foot

Hiking the Greenstone Ridge
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While looking at a map of Michigan in preparation for my trip to Isle Royale National Park, I discovered that the outline of Lake Superior suggests the head of a west-facing wolf. Upper and lower canine jaws close around the jutting Keweenaw Peninsula. Wisconsin's Apostle Islands and Minnesota's Duluth Harbor function as nostril and snout, respectively, and toward the northwest corner of the planet's largest lake lies Isle Royale, the eye of the wolf. It is fitting and perhaps serendipitous that the topography and location of Isle Royale should call to mind such a beast. Though they are rarely seen, wolves are a star attraction on this distant block of forest and rock.

Isle Royale is different than most national parks in that it requires real planning and preparation to visit. The park, actually an archipelago of 200 islands, is quite remote. Just getting to one of its three ports of departure — Houghton, Michigan, Copper Harbor, Michigan, or Grand Harbor, Minnesota — requires some planning. Once visitors arrive in their chosen port town, they take a passenger ferry or a seaplane (from Houghton only) to the narrow, 45-mile-long island.

The mighty Inland Sea is notorious for its changing, often challenging, and never boring weather, and the ferry ride across Lake Superior can be quite an adventure. Even when it is warm on the mainland, the lake can be frigid, offering an instant departure to a different season. Days of clear, flat calm can suddenly give way to wind, wave, and fog. Though the trip can last more than six hours, the first glimpse of Isle Royale makes it worthwhile. On a day with low visibility, the island comes into view almost miraculously, as if a chunk of northern forest had been lifted and set gently onto the water before the oncoming boat.

The relative difficulty of access heightens the experience on Isle Royale. According to National Geographic's Guide to the National Parks of the United States, the average visit to Isle Royale lasts three and a half days, while an average visit to other national parks is around four hours. Because visitors must leave their car behind before heading to the 850 square miles of roadless wilderness, they tend to slow down and stay awhile.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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