Wolverine Traveler: Chapter 4
We lost 1 day on Isle Royale due to bad weather so, we were eager to make time meeting Dave back at the airfield first thing Sunday morning to try to fly us out again. Now with the clouds having cleared from the night before we could see for miles as we rose up away from the mainland Isle Royale coming into view once we were out over the water.
The plane came in across the southeastern edge of the island; even from this perspective we couldn’t full grasp the size of it. Landing in Tobin Harbor, the plane touched down in the water so gently that neither of us noticed we were no longer in the air, our noses pressed to windows staring at the wild world around us. I’ve made it one of my goals these past few years of travel to try to reach the more remote parts of America while the rest of the country seems steadily on a march to fill every open space with strip malls and parking lots. The least visited National Park in the Continental United States, Isle Royale averages about 20,000 visitors per year, which is less than some other parks get in a day. In the 1980s it was classified as an International Biosphere, guaranteeing for the time being it will remain untouched. The forests looked spectacular from above, but nothing would prepare us for what they looked like when we finally set foot in them.
Wanting to make the most of our visit, we wasted no time dropping our bags at the Rock Harbor lodge and headed down to the pier to rent a boat, planning to spend the day exploring the islands that dotted the coast of this massive island. We were advised to first stop at Raspberry Island just across Rock Harbor, where we could wander and explore the forests then head southwest down the edge of the Island. Blaine said it best when he remarked that it’s not often you get to walk through a woods that haven’t been touch in some way. Nothing had been cleared, the forest had been left to its own devices, and it was a remarkable difference from most forests I’d been in. Lichen covering everything; the forest felt prehistoric around us, draped in a species called Old Man’s Beard. The trails mostly stamped down by moose, you got the feeling you were visiting a land that wasn’t ours. We hiked the interior of the island from rocky shore through the old forest and swamps, marveling at this world we had stumbled upon.
After a morning walking through Raspberry Island, dodging moose tracks and scrambling over the rocky shoreline, we re-boarded our boat and began motoring down through the reach of Rock Harbor, circling the islands, some no bigger than rocks with a few trees poking out of them. Occasionally we would pass a boat fishing, or see the red packs of hikers on the ridges around us, peaking out from the trees, but for the most part we felt alone in this world. As we reached the end of Rock Harbor and prepared to explore the Mosey Basin, hoping to land and explore more on foot, a rumbling over the mainland to our right caught our attention.
It took us a few seconds to realize what was happening, but as the dark clouds began to roll in over Isle Royale, coming from the direction of Thunder Bay in Canada, we realized we were in a bit of trouble. The small metal boat we were currently floating along in was not a great place to ride out a thunderstorm, especially not in the middle of the bay. We made the quick decision to try and outrun the storm back to the lodge probably 5 miles away at this point. As Blaine gunned the motor and I kept an eye on the lighting striking the land to our left, we shot back towards the safety of the harbor
In this we chose wrong and quickly drove straight into a wall of water. Blaine keeping an eye on skies (being Texan born he was worried about spirals in the clouds coming down. Neither of us was prepared for the marble-sized hail that began pelting us, ringing off the boat’s metal hull as we realized we were not going to make it home. Yelling over the din of the storm and both pointing at the shore, Blaine quickly turned and ran us to the tree line. I hopped out into the knee-deep water pulling us aground, tying off to a splintered birch tree. We just stood their laughing, huddled in the rain as our boat filled with hail and the storm passed safely over us moving south towards Copper Harbor. After 15 minutes of standing there the skies cleared, and we climbed soaked and amused back into our boat and motored home. Changing out of our wet clothes, we figured we had enough of the water for one day and we would spend the rest of the afternoon hiking the interior, trying to get out along one of the ridges we had seen from the shore.
Still being limited in time on the island, we did a quick loop a few miles out to Suzy’s Cave and back to the lodge, taking a few moments every now and then to just walk out into the thick of the forest. It's A magical world to wander in - I have never seen anything like this before (visit ColdSplinters.com for an exclusive look at Isle Royal). We grabbed dinner at the Rock Harbor lodge before it closed, not wanting to miss our only opportunity for food out here. We sat out on the rocks next to the lodge to watch the sunset across Lake Superior, enjoying the lack of cell phone service or any other form of communication with mainland, stepping away for a little while.
Waking the following morning with just a few hours left on island, we grabbed a canoe and paddled across Tobin Harbor where our plane had landed, musing the whole time what would happen if the plane came while we were in the middle of the “runway.” We hugged the shoreline across the harbor looking for the landing to the trail to take us up to Look Out Louise overlooking the boundary waters and Canada north of us. Not finding the landing but having a fairly good idea of where we were heading, we beached the canoe at the entrance to Hidden Lake and hurried up the trail, not wanting to miss our ride home and still trying to see as much as possible.
The trail to Lookout Louise is a short 1-mile to the top; we spotted moose tracks in the mud that looked fresh so we walked in silence for most of the trip, hoping to catch a glimpse of one before we left. We’d been told that the wolf population on the island was down to 8, so we had no chance of seeing one, but the moose numbered over 1000 so we had a better chance. A couple we met on the trail yesterday had seen one wandering the ridge we were walking on but we had no luck. We saw no animal life for the most part, just some carnivorous plants. Isle Royale is pretty barren in terms of animal life, the moose crossed the ice or swam over some time in the early 1900s from Canada and wolves followed soon after, but there isn’t much else out there. From Lookout Louise we heard our plane come in, the sound of the motor echoing off the water, and we quickly hurried down the trail to our canoe and across the harbor. We sadly said goodbye to Isle Royale realizing you would need weeks to see the whole thing. We were lucky enough just to have made it out there. On our return flight we had another passenger, Jay, who was getting dropped in Windigo Harbor to start a 10 day hike through the island. We took off from Rock Harbor and flew southwest across the entire Island; this was when we were able to comprehend the size of Isle Royal. Jay had been out every summer for 24 years, he said as we flew over the dense forest, and he could pick out his spots for the night from above. Amazing to think of someone knowing such a remote land so well. We dropped him in Windigo wishing him a good hike and good weather. We made our way back to Houghton, watching Isle Royale disappear into the blue behind us and we began our trip south, back towards Rockford and towards home.
Wolverine Traveler 001: The Upper Peninsula
Photo & Text: Mikael Kennedy
Model & Co-Pilot: Blaine Davis
Mikael Kennedy is a New York City-based commercial and fine art photographer. He is the author of the
internationally acclaimed Polaroid travel blog, Passport to Trespass, documenting his 10 years of wandering the
United States with a Polaroid SX70.
Raised in the contrasting cultures of South Texas and Eastern Europe, Blaine Davis quickly developed a taste
for travel, photography and the outdoors at a young age. Currently working as a photographer, teacher and
sometime writer in Brooklyn, NY.