Fifteen miles off the Canadian shore of Lake Superior looms Isle Royale – a beautiful, 133,000-acre, one-billion-year-old hunk of rock that’s defined by contradictions.
A National Park since 1940, it’s on the “bucket list” for countless travelers – but still remains one of the least visited sites in the 390-park system.
Ninety-nine per-cent wilderness, much of Isle Royale’s ecosystem has been shaped by activities of humans. Indians began mining copper here at least 4,500 years ago. The natives probably imported snowshoe hares, and perhaps other animals and plants.
Nineteenth-century miners blasted into the rock searching for copper, after setting fire to the forests to clear away vegetation that slowed their efforts.
Loggers cut some of the prime trees – even with the realization that getting the timber to market across the turbulent lake could be next to impossible.
Commercial fishing thrived in the late 1700s, when whitefish and lake trout were harvested to feed fur traders and voyageurs. The industry continued well into the 1900s – and sport fishermen still ply both Lake Superior and inland streams and lakes.
In the early 1900s, several resorts and private clubs were developed as playgrounds and retreats for the rich from the mainland.
Caribou and lynx once inhabited the island, but disappeared about a century ago. Later, moose somehow found their way across the ice – or swam the lake – to populate the island. Without predators to control them, the moose populations cycled from boom to bust, sometimes devastating the vegetation they fed on.
In the 1940s, wolves came to the island and began feeding on moose, paving the way for classic predator/prey wildlife research. But with disease and inbreeding now bringing wolf populations back down to two or three animals, the balance is once again threatened.
Despite its isolation, the island is home to more than 600 species of fungi and 30-plus species of orchids, along with a rich variety of other northwoods plants.
We pondered this history and natural history on a recent week-long visit to the biggest island on the largest fresh-water lake in the world. Well, not a FULL week, because our trip was delayed a day by the whims of Kitchi-Gummi, as the Chippewa called Superior.
“We’re not going today,” announced the ferry boat captain when we arrived at the Grand Portage, Minn., dock for a 2½-hour ride to the island. Too windy, too rough. And if the boat captain doesn’t think it’s safe, you don’t argue!
The waters calmed by the next morning, however, so we boarded the Voyageur II at 5 a.m., and watched with anticipation as the dark shadow on the far eastern horizon gradually took shape as Isle Royale.
Once at the park, the contrasts continued. Margaret and I were able to take ferry shuttles to three different campgrounds, while our daughter and her boyfriend hiked and backpacked about 50 of Isle Royale’s 165 miles of trails. Something for both slow-paced “seniors” and more energetic explorers. Either way, a fun adventure!
Here is a sampling of more delights from our trip.