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Isle Royale, MI . Lake Superior, August 19-24


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   For many years I had wanted to make a trip to Isle Royale National Park in northern Lake Superior:  A trip requiring this much car travel, logistics and free time never came together for me until now, when I finally decided to get all Carpe Diem-ish and just do it.  

  Isle Royale is about 44 miles long and no wider than @ 4-5 miles, with a mostly rocky and wooded shoreline. The spine of Greenstone Ridge runs the length of the island, and there are numerous fine NPS waterfront campsites, including a handful only accessible by boat , all of which are up to or surpassing the standards we have come to expect on the Maine Island Trail. 
Isle Royale is the least visited of all National Parks, requiring a boat trip; 3-6 hours by ferry from three locations on the mainland. There’s a not-large National Parks visitors center, marina  and village at Rock Harbor with a few amenities,  and a smaller ranger office at Windigo on the western end of the island ;  otherwise the island is wild except for a few fishing camps and structures here and there, and an extensive network of hiking trails with campsites.   A kayak or backpacking trip here qualifies as a wilderness experience. 


I had always envisioned a circumnav.  of this island, for which a week is advised.  However, during Covid I was stricken with a great misfortune, stenosis in my cervical area requiring major spinal surgery (fusion of three sets of cervical vertebrae) which left my legs considerably weakened,  greatly diminishing my kayak capabilities, at least for the time  being.  So I have had to rethink my kayaking in general and scale down my expectations for a trip such as this.  
   I ditched  any ideas of a circumnav. and narrowed my focus to the eastern part of the island, where a quick gander at aerial photos and charts clearly reveal a paddlers paradise.  

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I was questioning my fitness for such a trip, even after I adjusted my expectations.
  I had done  two 4-5 day paddling trips this summer which gave me some idea of what I could and couldn’t handle in my sorry state.  I finally was emboldened to make this trip when I connected with  Patty, an old friend  from my home town, whom I had known since Union County Band and Orchestra school,  and who now spends a  3-4 weeks each summer on Isle Royale  with her husband on their sailboat, the Doris E.  


Patty and Dave would be available to help me out , mothership me if needed,  generally be within VHF range and provide a safety contact.  
Generally, my approach would be  to paddle prudently, noodling-style, take frequent rests and skinny dips,  and aim for daily mileage in the 7-10 NM range. I would be with vhf (monitored on 16 by the NPS)  and a Garmin Inreach GPS  personal  locator  device.  
So I booked a ferry ticket from Houghton, MI  to Isle Royale, and drove with kayak and gear from Massachusetts  to Michigan’s upper peninsula,  via Ontario and Sault Ste Marie,  visiting my cousin near Toronto along the way.  Once on the northern Peninsula, I visited Pictured Rocks National seashore, which was appealing enough for me to return to for a deeper dive on the way home.    

Lake Superior takes its sand dunes, rocky shorelines (and cumulus clouds)  seriously. 


I boarded the Ranger III in Houghton, MI for the 6 hour trip to Rock Harbor, The Ranger III is the largest and most seaworthy of the three ferries going to IR , so it was a comfortable ride for this seasick-prone passenger. For much of the trip we were in the fog, but broke out into the sunshine  just as we approached the island, and its beauty was immediately apparent as we entered Rock Harbor. 

  I met my friends Patty and Dave at the ferry dock, and  together we portaged my kayak and gear about 150 meters  across the narrow Rock Harbor peninsula to Tobin Harbor, a better setting-off point for a kayak trip.  I quickly saddled up and paddled to their sailboat , moored about a mile away  in Tobin Harbor near Hidden Lake. and spent the night with them on the Doris E, ., having dinner and a mini HS reunion , discussing the island, and making our respective plans for the coming days.  


 The next morning I loaded my boat for good (not an easy task to load a kayak  from a sailboat: I didn’t lose anything but I still don’t recommend it ) and set off on my own, first a quick trip back to the headquarters to reserve my ferry return, then off for the eastern end of the island, with a goal of rounding Blake Point,  a crux point on any IR trip as this area can be a magnet for trouble on Lake Superior’s many days of harsh weather and crashy waters.  One of my safety measures was to be prepared for assistance from the Doris E as they they could carry me and kayak around the point if need be. But I was generally blessed with idyllic weather and mostly calm waters , sunny skies and warm temperatures,  and rounding the point solo was a breeze, followed by about 1 ¼ NM of reflecting waves off of the dramatic basalt palisades on the north side the point.  


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  Isle Royale is essentially one big lava flow, with the resulting basalt rock a distinct grey-dark  pumpernickel color, often splashed with orange lichens. The basalt is quite nuanced on closer examination: the cooling lava entrapped many gases which in turn metamorphosed into various minerals such as feldspar, so the basalt was often dotted  and veined with interesting pink, white , green  colors and patterns: Amygdaloid basalt.  


Wildflowers were everywhere! 

 Once around Blake Point , I ambled into Duncan Bay and the Duncan Narrows campsite,  a fine grassy  place with a picnic table and two luxurious lean-tos, equipped with screen doors (!) , which I realized would be of great utility (or rather indispensable)  earlier in the summer . Biting insects were minimal at this time of year , but I would not advise visiting this island in June or much of July.   
I settled in for dinner, but had packed mostly dehydrated backpackers meals, which were a sore disappointment, and by night three I switched  back to plain old macaroni and cheese or other pasta augmented with grated cheddar  and a few other goodies.
The day's mileage was @ 8.5  NM 

I set off the next morning  and continued to amble down  Duncan Bay, a long dead end,  and met again with Patty and Dave, who  had moored for several days near the end of Duncan Bay , and they  helped me portage my kayak  @ 150 meters  to Five Finger Bay , a nice help as it spared me the return trip out around Locke Point, which I would tour anyway on the return to Rock Harbor.  Entering Five Finger Bay I was greeted with ever more fabulous sunny & calm weather,  so I changed my plan of exploring all the  inland bays, nooks and crannies to capitalize on this  opportunity to go way out there, touring outermost  Amygdaloid island before returning to Belle Isle campsite, a sprawling, venerable place ,which must be on the site of some historical structure, with several lean-tos, a boat dock and a lovely open field area.  
Day's 's mileage was @14.5 NM, longer than I had planned but I couldn't not keep going on such a nice day. 


The next day my goal was to get back around Blake Point so I’d be prepared the next afternoon to get close to the ferry which would be leaving early the next morning.  So I paddled in and out of and  between  little islands, around Locke Point and back around Blake point, before settling into another fine campsite nearby.
Day's mileage was @9.5 NM 





On the next day I paddled back to the Tobin Harbor mooring  where Doris E had returned , and met up  with Patty and Dave for a hike from nearby Hidden Lake trailhead  up to Sentinel Rock and Lookout Louise, at the terminus of the island-long Greenstone Ridge trail. The hike took us through an area that had been scorched by a big forest fire in 2021, and the landscape was blackened and Stygian. Sentinel Rock is perhaps the most notable geologic feature on the island, and it was interesting to see it amidst this scorched landscape, which has its own beauty, especially with emerging plants  and  wildflowers showing signs of the landscape beginning its restoration.


Lookout Louise gave a view of Duncan Bay and beyond 

From the trailhead, we said our goodbyes and I returned to Rock Harbor, this time around Scoville Point and  along Rock Harbor which finally showed me some bumpy waters. I was planning to stay on kayak-friendly Tookers Island nearby, but was told at the Ranger office that I could use the nearby Rock Harbor campground, so I sorted out my gear in preparation for the early morning ferry, grabbed a sandwich wrap at the cafe, and crashed in one of the campground lean-tos,  catching the ferry early the next morning.
Day's mileage was @ 5.5NM., plus a 2-3 mile hike.  

Isle Royale was a fabulous destination, made all the better with fortuitous conditions - one sunny fair day after another. Campsites were grand, water was a great temperature for daily skinny dips,  and wildlife, though diminished like everywhere else, was plentiful by todays standards: Loons and mergansers seemed  plump and very tame, kingfishers,  bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, grey jays,  sandpipers, many whiish-whsssh -calling little birds like kinglets were often seen . Moose are plentiful but I only saw one as I was on the water most of the time. The fishing is outstanding: I shared some king salmon with a trio of hard core  fishermen at one campsite. Lake trout, and northern pike are plentiful; getting a 36 inch long pike is hardly worth mention.  I encountered two other kayakers,  plus two on the ferry coming and going . Otherwise boat traffic was sparse . I think that the second half of August is just the time to visit the island. 

I would recommend this trip to anyone with a fondness for fresh water and the time to make the trip. It’s a long but pleasant drive, with good things to see along the way (I toured the Soo locks at Sault Ste Marie, Pictured Rocks and Tacquemon Falls on the upper peninsula , and Killarney Provincial Park on Georgian Bay in Ontario.)  I could envision a trip which combines paddling and hiking and a grandiose vision would be of a 2 or 3 week trip that affords the time to appreciate all this island has to offer.  I may be looking to return to this place in the next year or two.  














Edited by PeterB
deleted photos added in error
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Wow, Peter, I've thought many times about a trip to Isle Royale. Maybe I need to get my carpe diem on too. Great to read your trip report and get some intel - it's been hard to find any kayak trip reports for the island. I was thinking early September but now will also consider late August. Very sorry to hear about your health issues and I hope the strength comes back in time. Thanks for giving me some more material for winter-time dreaming and planning.

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Enjoyed the description of the trip and pictures.  Did not enjoy description of medical issues and hope those resolve promptly and well.

Did you hear any wolves?  My understanding is that after a decline they are on increase, but still few.

Ed Lawson

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 Good eye : That was my water bottle (empty tonic bottle filled with water)  taken out of the hatch during one of my many rest stops. But, yes,  I did bring some  groceries to my sailing friends  who had been without resupply for 3 1/2 weeks,  including  gin, tonic  and limes for g&t's on their  sailboat. But all I could find in the Houghton   market was diet tonic, so I may  have stigmatized myself as a gin & tonic  barbarian.    

 I heard no wolves,  and understand that their populations have dwindled significantly.  My first awareness of Isle Royale was from around high school, reading of the moose-wolf populations there  living in balance, a well known story.   Moose are plentiful,  often seen swimming in channels between islands and peninsulas. Loon calls were incessant. 

    Funny, but once I arrived the island struck me as a Hartland-esque (and Yorkian) kind of place: ideal for those who enjoy paddling and strolling .  
Services and ferries close down pretty early,  I think around September 10th , probably for a good reason.  September would be grand , but with an added chance of harsh weather on and off the water. If you need any more info, give a holler. I feel pretty conversant on the island now; and it's an easier place to trip plan and get to than  might first appear. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I loved reading about your trip, Peter. Great photos/charts too. This is one I dream of. My Dad used to road-trip us to this area when I was very young. We went by ferry and through Sault Ste Marie a few times. Have always wished I could go back and paddle Lake Superior. Isle Royale sounds fabulous! Thanks for sharing and I am so happy to hear you were able to do this. Both impressive and inspiring.


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