Isle Royale, MI

Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” played in my head as I bobbed up and down in large cresting waves:

    The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee. The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead When the skies of November turn gloomy.

The 81-foot Isle Royale Queen III, much smaller than the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald, was taking me to Isle Royale National Park, some 45 miles off the Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan. I had come to join Michael Gray, a frequent paddling partner, and some friends to kayak along the south shore of the island. Michael guides on Lake Superior, so I figured I was in capable hands.

What I hadn’t figured on, though, was just how big Lake Superior is. When I first laid eyes on it, I got a jolt of sobriety. Six-foot waves were crashing over rocky reefs, sending frothy spray high into the air. The horizon looked like an undulating woodpecker in flight. As far as I could tell, I was looking at an ocean; there was no land in sight to the north. And the water was cold. Really cold.

Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world (Lake Baikal is the deepest). The lake is 350 miles long and 160 miles wide, and covers 31,820 square miles. In other words, it’s about the size of Maine. At its deepest, Superior is over 1,000 feet deep. It holds 10 percent of the world’s freshwater supply and is famous for its transparent, clean water.

“Let’s carry the boats down past the docks to the sandy beach near the lodge,” Michael suggested as the Queen III tied off at Rock Harbor on Isle Royale. “It’s really the only place to load the boats.”

Located on the southeast end of Isle Royale, Rock Harbor is a popular spot for ferryboats to drop off their passengers. While we unloaded kayaks and gear, Michael walked to the nearby national park visitor center to register. All backcountry users must register, and camping is generally limited to established sites to minimize impact. Michael also secured a “cross-country permit,” which would allow us to camp at non-designated sites if the weather forced us off the water. Judging by what I’d seen of Lake Superior weather, I suspected that we would be using our cross-country permit.

After quickly packing our boats, we headed west along the Rock Harbor channel, a perfect introduction to paddling along Isle Royale. For about six miles, the channel is protected from the full exposure of the open lake, which allowed us to get our paddling rhythm and arrive at our campsite on Caribou Island before dark. Even so, we battled waves and a strong west wind all the way to camp.

“Keep an eye out for moose,” Michael said. “Isle Royale has the highest density of moose in the country.”

Authorized in 1931, Isle Royale National Park is best known for the unusual relationship between its two largest mammals-moose and wolves. Around 1900, the first few moose swam over from the north shore, about 16 miles away. There had been no large herbivores on the island, and they found an abundant food supply. The moose population exploded, and by 1930, there were about 3,000 on an island only 45 miles long and 3.5 miles wide. But nature, with its checks and balances, had an answer for this moose utopia. In the winter of 1948, some wolves crossed an ice bridge to the island. Since then, both populations have equilibrated. Today, the moose number around 900, and the wolves around 19. There are no bears, deer, or caribou on the island.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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