Return to Isle Royale
You never forget the first time you see Isle Royale. For me it was back in the late 1970s (yeah I’m old) on a beautiful late summer’s day. We were 50 miles from Thunder Bay, about to enter Canada when we rounded a bend. In the distance, across the sparkling waters of Lake Superior lay majestic Isle Royale with its forested shoreline adorned by a thin layer of fog. It was only a distant view but I knew that I would have to set foot there. Someday.
My someday finally happened in the summer of 2014. Our kayaking and hiking vacation began in Copper Harbor, Michigan with a ferry ride from there to Isle Royale.
Saturday July 26. It was around 10:30 p.m. when we arrived at our cabin at Eagle Lodge Lakeside outside of Copper Harbor at the extreme northern tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Daughter Jacey drove from her home in Minnesota and arrived soon after us. I had reserved our Eagle Lodge cabin after a Google search. The website claimed their Rustic Red Cabin was a favorite among guests, so that’s the one I picked. It was a good choice — great view and only a few steps from the shore of Lake Superior.
Sunday July 27. We drove four miles to Copper Harbor for breakfast at the Tamarack Inn. The place was crowded so service was slow. But the food was good once it arrived. Our next stop was grocery shopping at the tiny but well-stocked Gas Lite General Store. After that we headed to nearby Fort Wilkins State Park for some sightseeing.
But first a side trip.
We attempted to drive to the Copper Harbor Light. Check that. “I” was the one who attempted to drive to the lighthouse. Mary and Jacey were along for the ride. For awhile they tolerated my unwarranted optimism. Eventually I acknowledged that the rough road we were on was actually an ATV trail. We backtracked, found parking along the road, hiked to the shoreline and scrambled up a rocky ridge for some photos before being chased inland by cold wind and rain spewing off Lake Superior.
“Eventually I acknowledged that the rough road we were on was actually an ATV trail.”
Once back on an actual road, we headed to the state park where a Civil War encampment was underway. Battery D, 1st Michigan Light Artillery, a Civil War era living history group, stages the reenactment annually. After an artillery demonstration we watched an informative, albeit gruesome, field hospital presentation. Mary was “delighted” to be selected from the crowd of onlookers to play the role of a mother consoling a wounded soldier who was supposedly having his leg amputated. Mary’s not normally into pretending but she played along with the whole bloody affair.
Later that day Jacey and I rented bikes from Keweenaw Adventure Company and rode some of Copper Harbor’s acclaimed mountain bike trails. KAC rents mountain bikes and will shuttle you and your bike to the top of the mountain so all you have to do on the way down is resist gravity and fear. The staff at KAC were great to work with; knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. They helped us choose trails that matched our abilities. We selected a trail called “The Flow” which was a perfect choice for me because it tested the boundaries of my mountain biking ability. Jacey displayed more skill than her old man on the steepest downhill turns. That evening the three of us enjoyed dinner at the Mariner Restaurant in Copper Harbor.
Monday July 28. We rose early to be at the Isle Royale Ferry dock by 7 a.m. For this vacation, Mary and I brought our sea kayaks with us, so after arriving at the pier we unloaded them from our car so crewmembers could load them onto the Queen. I kept a watchful eye on the loading process because friends had cautioned us that Queen crew members dropped the bow of one of their fiberglass kayaks a few weeks earlier, gouging a hole in the gel coat. On this day our crew carefully loaded our boats up to the top deck of the ferry without incident. We weighed anchor about 8:10 a.m. and enjoyed a remarkably calm 2 hour 45 minute ferry ride to Isle Royale with 60 other passengers. Even though it was the middle of summer, Lake Superior’s waters were colder than normal, which chilled the air and kept most passengers inside the ferry’s heated passenger cabin.
After arriving at Isle Royale, a National Park Service ranger gave a dockside orientation presentation at Rock Harbor. We stowed our kayaks in a nearby rack and walked to our cabin. Since we were first-timers to Isle Royale, we decided early in our trip planning that instead of camping we would stay in a housekeeping cabin at the Rock Harbor Lodge, which is owned by the NPS and operated by USA Forever Resorts. Our cabin was clean and cozy. It should be. Because it’s NPS property, lodging at Rock Harbor Lodge is pricey. For the three of us, our cabin came to $318 per night.
We ate lunch in the cabin and then set off on a 10-mile hike on the Tobin Harbor Trail, continuing to the summit of Mt. Franklin for spectacular views of the north side of the island and mainland Canada in the distance. Rain gear came in handy during this hike. Our pant legs got soaked from rubbing against tall wet plants. Dinner that evening was at the Rock Harbor Lodge’s Lighthouse Restaurant. After an evening of Scrabble, popcorn and wine in the cabin, we called it a day.
Tuesday July 29. The day started with breakfast of pancakes and eggs at the cabin. Next up, our first kayak paddle of the trip. As I mentioned, Mary and I brought our sea kayaks for the trip. We were planning to rent a third kayak for Jacey because the Isle Royale website said kayak rentals were available at Rock Harbor. Unfortunately, we found out that the rental kayaks were the recreational type – not sea kayaks – and they could only be paddled in Tobin Harbor. It was a setback but we figured out a way to make do. Jacey walked the short distance to the dock in Tobin Harbor where rental kayaks were kept. Mary and I paddled from Rock Harbor around Scoville Point and into Tobin Harbor to meet up with Jacey. From there, Jacey took my kayak and I paddled the rental boat. The three of us paddled to the west end of Tobin Harbor and then back to the rental dock. There Jacey and I traded boats so she could continue to paddle for a while near the dock while Mary and I returned around Scoville Point to Rock Harbor. As we put our boats and gear away, we talked with several kayakers who had just completed a kayaking trip around the entire island.
That evening, we walked to the Greenstone Grill for an alfresco dinner. As it turned out, our table was next to the round-the-island group so we enjoyed talking and laughing with them during dinner and wine.
Wednesday July 30. While Jacey paddled across Tobin Harbor in a rental kayak and hiked up to Lookout Louise, Mary and I paddled our sea kayaks southwest from Rock Harbor Lodge along the chain of islands. We beached near the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, ate lunch and then toured the beautifully restored lighthouse, including 72 steps to the top of the light tower for impressive views of the island. Next we paddled across the channel back to Isle Royale proper to the Daisy Farm campground to stretch our legs. Mary said she would be okay camping in one of the huts so that’s on our list for a future Isle Royale trip. We paddled outside of the islands for our return trip to Rock Harbor, pushed along by two-foot swells out of the south.
“We paddled outside of the islands for our return trip to Rock Harbor, pushed along by two-foot swells out of the south.”
After returning to the cabin, the three of us took a walk on the Scoville Point trail with a brief stop at the Smithwick Mine remnants, which today are holes in the ground surrounded by a fence. After dinner at the Grill restaurant, Jacey and I walked down to the Tobin Harbor dock to view the sunset while Mary stayed in the cabin to read. On our way back to the cabin (around 9:30 p.m. and still light out) we stopped in our tracks to see a large moose chewing plants along the trail. For several minutes we stood, watched and snapped photos. I wanted to let Mary know what was going on but we couldn’t get past the moose to our cabin. I walked to the nearest cabin to let the guests know about the moose outside. They scurried to grab their cameras. After 15 minutes or so the moose meandered past us so I was able to make my way to our cabin to alert Mary. We maintained a safe distance as we observed the moose with the other half-dozen or so guests who had gathered.
Thursday, July 31, 2014. Since Mary and I used the sea kayaks the previous day, we decided Jacey and I would paddle them today while Mary went on a long hike. Mary hiked more than16 miles along the Tobin Harbor Trail, up to Mt. Franklin and then over to Mt. Ojibway. Along the way she came upon a baby moose with its momma off the trail in a marshy pond. Mary shot photos and a video on her phone. She hiked back via the shoreline trail and arrived around 2:30 pm. Meanwhile, Jacey and I paddled from Rock Harbor and stopped for lunch at Three Mile campground. We talked to a couple from Colorado camping with their two teenagers and the man’s 80-year-old parents. For transportation, the 80-somethings were using a rented motorboat while the rest of the family paddled two canoes. To me, it seemed like a good way to work an extended family vacation.
Jacey and I took a circuitous route back to Rock Harbor Lodge, paddling first inside and then outside several offshore islands. At one point we Jacey climbed to the top of one of the small rocky islands for a photo op. On Raspberry Island there’s a dock and a marked nature trail. We changed out of our dry suits and hiked the island for about an hour without seeing another soul before paddling back to Rock Harbor Lodge. Back at the cabin, Mary was just finishing showering and changing. After dinner at the Grill we witnessed another spectacular sunset over Rock Harbor and Tobin Harbor.
Friday, August 11, 2014. Our last day on Isle Royale began like the others with a breakfast of pancakes and eggs at the cabin. With dishes washed and belongings packed, we walked down to the lodge office to check out, leaving our bags there so we could hike until the Queen’s departure that afternoon. We set off for Scoville Point, a beautiful trail with spectacular vistas, especially at the easternmost end of the loop. Sitting on a rocky outcropping, we ate lunch and took in the view.
Back at Rock Harbor we had time before departure to sit on the waterfront deck of the main lodge. Reading. Enjoying the sunshine’s warmth. Our voyage back to Copper Harbor was even smoother than our first leg. We arrived back in Copper Harbor about 6:15 p.m., retrieved our bags and boats from the Queen and loaded the kayaks on our car. After hugs and good-byes with Jacey, Mary and I headed home. It was a trip we’ll never forget. And it won’t take me 30 years to return.
About Isle Royale
The island of Isle Royale is located in Lake Superior, southeast of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is 45 miles long and 9 miles wide at its widest point. The park encompasses a total area of 850 square miles, including submerged lands which extend 4.5 miles out into Lake Superior. It is approximately 22 miles from the Canadian shore and 55 miles from Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.
Isle Royale National Park was authorized by Congress in 1931 “to conserve a prime example of North Woods Wilderness”. The park was designated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1976 under the Wilderness Act and remains today as an example of primitive America. Ninety-Nine percent of the park’s land area is designated as wilderness. In 1981 Isle Royale was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations giving it global scientific and educational significance. Accessible only by boat or float plane, Isle Royale is relatively untouched by direct outside influences and serves as a living laboratory.
The park is open to the public from approximately April 15 through the month of October. Boat and seaplane services run from early May through early October. There are over 165 miles of hiking trails on the island, ranging from easy to difficult. Besides Lake Superior, there are many inland lakes with relatively easy portages if going by canoe or kayak. It is the least-visited National Park but has the most repeat visitors and one of the longest average lengths per visit. More people go to Yellowstone National Park in a day than go to Isle Royale in a year.
How to pronounce “Isle Royale”
When it comes to pronouncing location names your best advice is to trust the locals. Ferry boat captains, park rangers and island residents agree that the “Royale” in “Isle Royale” is pronounced “ROY-ǝl” just like “royal” with no “e”.