Not far from Rock Harbor Lighthouse on Cemetery Island in Isle Royale National Park, is an eerie gravesite, enclosed by a fence that is five feet wide and 10 feet long. Old man’s beard lichen coats the wooden pickets. In the 1850s, according to the grave marker, 12 to 20 copper miners killed each other in a drunken brawl between mining camps. The opponents remain forever embraced in the little site.
Isle Royale has other picket-fenced graveyards, shallow mining pits, old lighthouses, a fishing museum, a wolf-moose research base, 165 miles of hiking trails, inland lakes, rugged volcanic ridges, little harbors that hold tranquility in their grasp and a rocky shoreline that lends itself to magic. The archipelago bears mystical names like Windigo, Tobin Harbor, Daisy Farm, Moskey Basin, Ojibway and Greenstone Ridge.
The 45-mile long and nine-mile wide island, located in the northwest segment of Lake Superior, has some 400 tiny islets that dot Lake Superior waters to create this unique 894-square-mile archipelago. Formed more than a billion years ago when the earth bared its soul to the atmosphere and spewed eons of molten rock onto its crust, the basalt-laced icon in relatively more recent times became scarred and grooved by mile-thick ice sheets. Then—almost yesterday in geologic time—wolves, fox and moose migrated over the winter ice from the Minnesota mainland, some 18 miles away. Aspen, maple, oak, pines and more than 600 kinds of lichen have found their way to the archipelago as well.
Isle Royale is considered one of the least accessible parks in the 50 states because there are no roads on the island and no roads lead to it. Visitors can reach the wilderness area only by float plane, passenger ferries or private boat, and only from mid-April through October. It is so remote that it is the only National Park that closes entirely during the winter. An average of 15,000 to 20,000 visitors take advantage of the island during the season. Yet, it is this remoteness that makes the park so appealing. A remoteness that is enhanced by the sound of loons calling, gulls crying and moose splashing in the water. Robinson Crusoe would have loved it here.
Most visitors arrive via Ranger III ferry boat, out of Houghton, which takes up to 128 passengers, backpacks, canoes and kayaks, on a six hour, 73-mile journey, or the Isle Royale Queen IV, which departs Copper Harbor for a three-hour trip to the park. The Big Lake often welcomes them with sunshine glistening on the water, rolling waves, and even unique fog banks—and sometimes, rough seas.
Some visitors stay overnight at the Rock Harbor Lodge and return to the mainland the next day. The majority, however, stay at least four days, camping in tents or shelters at one of the 36 wilderness campgrounds. Sea kayaks, canoes and motor boats are available for rent, and the park service conducts boat tours to points of interest. Day hikes and fishing are popular, as are the ranger-led walks, talks and kids’ programs. Scuba divers also take advantage of the clear water to explore several ship wrecks that are located in the archipelago.
ROCK HARBOR LIGHTHOUSE
Rock Harbor Lighthouse is a postcard in waiting, surrounded and even protected by a series of tiny islands. It is the most accessible of the park’s four lighthouses and the oldest, dating to 1855. The unattended housekeeper’s home is now a museum, loaded with photos of shipwrecks, past island copper mining operations and so much more. Other artifacts such as ship bells, old life preservers and even old shoes tell about crusty miners and sea-salts that accepted this kind of lifestyle as their piece of heaven. A hike up circular stairs takes visitors to a lookout cupola, atop the lighthouse, with views of numerous little islands that have thrust themselves free of the original bond of the mainland.
A quarter-mile walk, or 15 minutes by paddle from Rock Harbor is Edisen Fishery, a unique fishing museum. The log-built buildings, old fishing shacks, drying nets, a net house, buoy markers and docks depict the history of the commercial fishing operation that thrived from the late 19th century until the 1950s.
WOLF-MOOSE RESEARCH BASE
The center studying the predator-prey dynamics of wolves and moose is located near the lighthouse and Edisen Fishery. It is well worth the trip if you are interested in coming face to face with scores of upper and lower moose jaws. The nearby Moose Garden is just as intense. The unusual retreat has close to 100 moose racks to peruse. The center embraces the longest continuous study of predator-prey relationships in the world.
One can hike to Mt. Ojibway, atop Greenstone Ridge on the main island, while communing with wooden foot bridges, marshes, ground juniper, occasional blueberry bushes, moss-encrusted rock ledges and massive stretches of ground lichen. It is an aggressive hike up the ridge, where one can climb three stories of steps to the top of a lookout tower. Once hikers get to the top, they are rewarded with panoramic views of inland lakes, marshes, ridges, and views of Canada and the U.S. mainland. It’s not to be missed.
ROCK HARBOR CHANNEL
This seven-mile passageway runs between the main island and several outer islands with names like Cemetery, Tookers, Caribou and Raspberry. It springs to life with extra energy thanks to the sun glistening off kayak and canoe paddles or the presence of hikers and backpackers on the shoreline trail.
The only accommodations on the island are the motel-type rooms and cabins of Rock Harbor Lodge, on the east end of the passage. A restaurant, gift shop, snack bar and auditorium complement the lodge setting. Several observation decks built over the shoreline rocks invite lingering. Other docks accommodate fishing boats and excursion boats. A mere 100 yards away, float planes land at Tobin Harbor. In some years, baby fox play in the yard near the lodge, oblivious to humans walking by.
At Rock Harbor on the northeast end of the island and Windigo on the south, human activity challenges the remoteness of the park, but in such a small way that it is hardly noticeable. Even that little interruption of Isle Royale’s tranquility seems pristine. Watching float planes rise off the water, and listening to them roar, seems almost as much a part of the nature of Isle Royale as the sound of a loon calling in the distance.
Add to that the sounds of gulls, whispers of wind through the trees, waves lapping the shoreline, and the singing of channel buoys rocking with the sea, and you can’t escape the park without indelible memories.
WHEN YOU GO
ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK nps.gov/isro, (906) 482-0984
TRANSPORTATION Ranger III: nps.gov/isro Isle Royale Queen IV: isleroyale.com Isle Royale Seaplanes: isleroyaleseaplanes.com Passenger ferries also service the park from Grand Portage, Minnesota.
KEWEENAW CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU keweenaw.info, (888) 766-0325
This article originally appeared in the 2017 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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