Monday, 11 September 2023, Isle Royale NP
Isle Royale in Lake Superior: The fourth-largest lake island in the world, 45 miles long and up to 9 miles wide. The least-visited National Park in the contiguous 48 states. The only known place where wolves and moose exist without the presence of bears. Home to a rare island, in a lake, on an island, in a lake.
[Note: For a time, someone claimed they'd witnessed a boulder extending above water level in a seasonal pond on Ryan Island, which lies in Isle Royale's Siskwit Lake. That would make it the world's only island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island in a lake. However, Moose Boulder was reported as a hoax in 2020.]
Isle Royale: The only U.S. national park that closes every winter.
To visit the park, you must charter a private boat, take a ferry, or fly over with one of the air services. (Sure, you could try to swim 15-20 miles from the Ontario mainland, but the cold water'd freeze you if the waves didn't drown you.) This late in the season, the ferry schedule gets erratic, so I reserved one of the last seats with Isle Royale Seaplanes.
They had two planes scheduled to depart at 8:00; I joined six other passengers on the second plane. As we crossed over the wide expanse of Lake Superior, the sun, low in the sky, reflected brightly off the waves.
I looked for freighters plying the waters, but refrained from humming the song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. After a good part of an hour, we straddled the shore of the isle, and flew parallel to the island ridges
enroute to the protected Tobin Harbor.
We deplaned at the dock at Tobin. Our bags got removed from the plane and would magically reappear in each of our rooms by 1:00. Another full-service resort like at Lake Clark! but not as glitzy. Fun fact: since the entire (small) cabin of the plane is filled with seats, where do they load the baggage? Answer: in the hollow pontoons the plane uses for landing on water.
It took only a few minutes to walk to Rock Harbor, where the path branched at the park's Visitor Center. The sign outside the center advertised a ranger-guided hike starting at 9:30. That was now, so I hurried over to where a ranger waited with two other tourists. "I'm Ranger Kylie," she said, "and I'll be leading you on the final ranger hike of the year."
"Kylie!" I said, surprised. "That's my sister's name!"
"Good. That means you won't forget it." Indeed, every time I saw her for the next two days, I greeted her with, "Hello, Kylie Not-my-sister!"
Kylie launched into her spiel as she led us on Stoll Trail toward Scoville Point, heading northeast from the harbor. "I deputize you three as detectives and will ask you to help me solve a mystery regarding our wildlife - call it a 'moose-tery'. My first question: Moose first arrived here sometime around 1910. How did they get here?"
"They walked over on an ice bridge," I guessed. Someone else suggested they swam.
"For a while, we believed they did walk over on the ice," Kylie said. "But they studied moose a few years ago, putting a herd of them next to a frozen stream to see if they would cross. They stood there looking confused, and wouldn't proceed until it snowed over the ice, giving them some traction. So now we think maybe they swam." [A Wikipedia article on the park suggests that a man running a hunting preserve on the island imported them from Minnesota.]
A bit further along the trail, she offered clue 2. "The moose on the island are smaller than moose on the mainland. Why?"
I could figure that out. "Because of fewer predators!"
"Yes! That, and diet. Their size is their best defense against predators; with a lack of them, the size gene had less importance. If wolves hadn't come over on an ice bridge in the 1950s, we'd now have a species of mini-moose."
We continued out on the trail through the boreal forest.
Due to a thin topsoil layer on top of rocky ground, trees with a shallow root system like spruce or balsam fir predominated. For clue 3, Kylie described the connection between moose and beavers. A mature forest like we wandered through provides little nutrition for moose. The beavers, however, cut down the trees to create ponds, allowing shrubs and saplings to grow - moose munchies!
We never strayed far from views of the water.
Rocky outcroppings pushed into the lake, getting battered by waves. Kylie set a slow pace, allowing us to take pictures as she continued her spiel. "The populations of moose and wolves fluctuate in tandem. When you have more wolves, you get fewer moose; when the wolf population declines, more moose survive."
But sometimes, problems arise. Should humans intervene? "The wolf population plummeted, until the isle had only two wolves left: a father and his daughter, who were also half-siblings. No genetic diversity there! Experts had a big debate about whether to import more wolves, or let nature play its hand. In the end, the park imported another 19 wolves, and that population has grown to 31 wolves in three packs."
After an hour, Kylie ended the tour, as she had other tasks to attend to. "You're welcome to continue on this trail to the point, or return, your choice. One suggestion: if you encounter a moose, stay calm and don't harass it. If it starts to approach you, stand behind a big tree. You can move around the tree faster than the moose can."
I thought about what she'd said about beavers. "Just make sure it's not a sapling!" That drew a chuckle from her.
I went a bit further on the trail before turning back. Once I get my hiking boots from my duffel, I can consider a hike to the point. I took my time, stopping for photos, looking for wildlife (and trees to hide behind).
Rock Harbor, one of only two developed sites on the Isle,
consists of a grill and a restaurant, boat docks, the Visitor Center, a gift/supplies shop, and the Rock Harbor Lodge and Cabins.
Since I had time before 1:00, I wandered over to the Visitor Center. Yes, Kylie Not-my-sister was there, so I chatted with her while I stamped my passport. She recommended I take the afternoon boat/hike tour. On my stroll back to the grill for lunch, I passed other passengers from my plane ride - I would run into them regularly on my days there.
The park makes no excuses for its isolation. The seaplane company had handed each passenger a warning to always check the bulletin board for whether they've cancelled your return flight, and what to do if they have. Indeed, those boards at the Visitor Center mentioned that one of the incoming ferries had been delayed by several hours, thus affecting the people waiting to ride it home.
I stopped in the lodge office to buy a ticket for the afternoon tour, a boat ride around Scoville Point, followed by a hike to a viewpoint looking over the island. "Sorry," the Lodge Ladies told me, "The boat ride goes over open water, and the captain says the waves are too big to risk it today." Ahh, that's why the ferry was delayed. You've got to take what the island gives you.
After checking into my room and changing into my hiking boots,
I headed back out on the Stoll Trail. Though the trail extends only 2.1 miles to the point, that would take me over 1½ hours, as I ambled, reveling in nature, taking pictures, reading interpretive signs. After reading one sign, I challenged myself to find examples of the three types of lichens: crustose,
clinging tightly like a crust on a rock; fruticose,
with a web of tiny, leafless branches; foliose, having flat, leafy structures.
I continued northeast, moving back and forth between the shelter of trees
and more windswept terrain.
Often, I would stop and watch the waves crashing onto the rocks.
On occasion, a seaplane would shatter the silence of the wilderness.
After a while, I noticed my well-trod trail quickly turn into a less-used 'social trail' (an unofficial trail resulting from people trodding down it). I pushed forward, knowing that I still headed toward the northeast corner of the island. A few minutes later, I broke out of the woods to find myself on a point - but instead of the rocky, barren point I expected, I found a pair of cabins. Whatever! A bench invited me to sit for a spell, so I dropped my pack and took out a book to read for a short while. Well... read a couple of paragraphs, close my eyes for a few minutes, read a few more paragraphs, close my eyes, lather, rinse and repeat. No hurries here.
It was 4:30 once I headed back, and I fretted about being out there alone (I'd seen no one for quite some time). I carefully followed the meager trail back the way I came... and soon saw my mistake. I'd inadvertently stepped over a 'no trail here' pile of logs,
instead of noticing the rocky steps that would take me out to Scoville Point.
I found out later that the cabins were used by creative people enrolled in the Artists In Residence program at the park, and that was the trail to access them.
With other hikers now on the scene,
I felt comfortable finishing the trek to Scoville Point. After that, I meandered back to Rock Harbor, taking note of colorful vegetation along the way.
The restaurant was full and the kitchen struggled to keep up, so I opted for a burger at the grill instead. I then wandered over to the lodge's common room - the Lodge Ladies said I could connect to the Internet at that one spot. WiFi calling to check in with Sue! Unfortunately, my phone took forever to connect to their weak signal, and another eternity for it to reject the password the Lodge Ladies had given me.
You take what the island gives. I can embrace a couple days off the grid!