When most people think of a national park they think of Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon but what they should think of is the Isle Royale National Park. The reason is because the Isle Royale is what a national park should be which is wild, rugged, and buffered from the outside world. The Isle Royale lies in northwest Lake Superior and although its only just 18 miles of water that separate the island from its nearest mainland shore of the Minnesota-Ontario border, it is considered part of the state of Michigan which is 56 miles across the lake to the south.
The island is only accessible by boat or seaplane, and visitors come to experience the Isle Royale through hiking its trails, paddling its inland waterways, exploring the island’s rugged coast, or venturing into the depth of the island’s shipwrecks. The island’s physical isolation and primitive wilderness challenged human use for centuries and ironically that isolation has itself become the island’s main attraction. Those who make the trip to the Isle Royale come to see the island’s 165 miles of trail, fish its 46 inland lakes, and paddle along its rugged shoreline.
The Rock Harbor Lodge, which is at the island’s east end, offers simple motel styled rooms, handful of cabins, camp store, and a marina. The rest of the island is made up of forested foot trails, rocky bluffs, scenic lakes, and primitive campsites, in other words good old fashion backcountry. The Isle Royale is rough, untamed country and its trail are muddy, so for the unadventurous, this park isn’t for them. Everyone who goes to Isle Royale also have to stop near dockside to hear a ranger talk about low-impact hiking and camping.
For example, water must be boiled for two minutes or filtered, and the reason being is that chemical purifiers will not wipe out tapeworm cysts. What most people don’t know is that the Isle Royale National Park actually consist of more than 200 islands, and all of the are remains of the same landmass. The story begins 1. 2 billion years ago with a big rift in the earth’s crust, which may have extended from the Isle Royale, and southward, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. As this series of cracks poured molten lava, covering thousands of square miles. The molten lava flows that formed Keweenaw Peninsula 1. billion years ago also gave rise to the Isle Royale archipelago. About 30 million years later, faulting occurred, thrusting the Earth’s crust upward at an angle. On one side of the fault rose Isle Royale, with a northwest side of steep ridges and bluffs and in the southeastern shore that slopes gradually to the water. On the other side of the fault rose Keweenaw Peninsula, its topography a near mirror image of Isle Royale. Hikers are usually quick to notice the island’s washboard topography. North-south trails continually rise and fall as they traverse the folded terrain of each corrugated ridge.
The Greenstone Ridge Trail, on the other hand, remains relatively level. Human history connected with the Isle Royale begins with Native American people venturing into the Great Lakes on the heels of the last receding glacier known as the Wisconsin. On the Stoll Trail, by Scoville Point, you can find three small pits in the rock. These pits, form clues of the Native Americans who mined copper on the island and the region is scarred by ancient mine pits and trenches up to 20 feet deep. Carbon-14 testing of the wood remains found in sockets of copper artifacts indicate that the mines are at least 5700 years old.
The Isle Royale was given to the United States by the treat with Great Britain in 1783 but the British remained in control until after the War Of 1812. Also the Ojibwa people considered the island to be their territory. The Ojibwa ceded the island to the U. S. in the Treaty of La Pointe in 1842. Commercial fishing has been on of the mainstay economic activities on the island throughout historic times. It began before 1800, to feed the fur trade, and since about 1840, it has been largely an individual enterprise. The major economic species for commercial fishing were lake trout, whitefish and herring.
Most of the commercial fishing enterprises had closed by the mid-20th century. Sport fishing has now replaced commercial fishing. The species of fish that are sought are lake, brook, rainbow trout and many others. Spring and fall produce the biggest catches, but fishing is considered good throughout the season. In the mid 1840s, a report by Douglass Houghton, set off a copper boom in the state, and the first modern copper mines were opened on the island. Between the miners and commercial loggers, much of the island was deforested during the late 1800s.
Once the Isle Royale became a national park in 1940, logging and other exploitive activities ended, and the forest began to rejuvenate. A key draw for visitors is the island’s wildlife. Visitors to Isle Royale probably will never see a gray wolf. Wolves live in packs as social animals, but avoid people. Only the dominant male and female also known as the alpha pair mate and produce young. The Hierarchy of a wolf pack is strict, and failure to observe its rules brings sharp retribution, not only from the leads but from other members of the pack as well.
A breeding pack generally has a pair of leaders and there have been times that a pack have a second in command that scientist call the beta male. The dominant male, who carries his tail raised like a flag of authority, makes strategic and tactical decisions. It is the dominant male who begins a hunt and, after choosing potential prey, makes the first move against it. Other members of the pack which may number anywhere from 4 to 20, have their roles to play. As in any social structure, these vary from pack to pack, according to the skills and personalities of the wolves involved.
The Isle Royale’s other large inhabitant is the moose who lead solitary lives by comparison. They may feed in groups, and they may even enjoy one another’s company, but in matters of life and death each adult is on its own. Visitors to the park share trails with wolves and moose, which are the Isle Royale’s most famous inhabitants. The story of wolves, moose, and beavers is a fairly new one to Isle Royale, even in terms of the island’s relatively short history. At the beginning of the 1900s, neither moose and wolf were at the Isle Royale at all, and beavers were rare at best.
In fact, few mammals were to be found at the Isle Royale due to either natural course of events or human exploitation. Copper miners in the late 1800s burned off much of the forest and loggers took most of what was left, so life for large mammals became impossible. Fur trappers had found the island a rich source of beaver, lynx, fox, otter and the fur trappers have gone about their business amazingly efficiently and thoroughly. The copper mines did not pay off, and the loggers and trappers, having used all the resources, lost interest in Isle Royale.
Thus the devasted land was well into recovery when the first moose arrived, sometime in the early 1900s. Moose probably swam from the Canadian mainland and what they found was moose heaven. Their numbers doubled and redoubled and continued to grow so fast that, by the early 1920’s, weed beds in lakes and bays were being depleted. At its peak, the island’s moose population probably numbered 2,000 to 3,000. In the early 1930’s, due to malnutrition and disease, moose died back to a few hundred.
In the 1930s, there was a fire in the Isle Royale and spurred a lush regrowth of vegetation, which in turn boosted their numbers again. This cycle might have continued had it not been for the arrival of the eastern timber wolf. During the winter of 1948-49, an ice bridge formed on Lake Superior between Ontario and Isle Royale, allowing a small pack of wolves to cross to the island. The terrain suited the wolves and also the bountiful food source which was the moose. In response, the wolf population began burgeoning.
Thus began an interdependent cycle. With a large moose herd, wolves prevent overpopulation by killing the sick, the old , and the young. A smaller herd by contrast, means difficult hunting for the wolves, hurting their breeding rate. All of this and the island being isolated from cavitations’ effects, makes the Isle Royale serve as an ideal living laboratory of how plants and animals interrelate in nature’s cycles. Because of its uniquely isolated habitat, Isle Royale was declared an International biosphere Reserve in 1980 by the United Nations.
The world’s longest running wildlife research project involves Isle Royales’s moose and wolf populations. Since 1958, biologists have been monitoring their numbers, tracking them by plane during the winter months when they are easier to see. Many of the wolves have been fitted with radio collars. On trails, all visitors can expect though is to see animals’ tracks and droppings, although quietly grazing moose do surprise hikers, and even fewer hikers ever get to see wolves. A big concern though, is that visitors need to know that feeding the animals is illegal.
Feeding the animals is not healthy for them and increases the likelihood that they will scavenge for people’s food and equipment. Backpacking is the best way for visitors to experience Isle Royale, hiking from campground to campground strung along the park’s 165 miles of trails. The perfect time for visitors to go is late June to September because mosquitoes, black flies, and gnats are most pesky in June and July. The park closes from November to mid-April. Noncamping visitors can get a taste of the island by lodging at Rock Harbor, then taking day hikes and park tour boats to various island attractions.
The Isle Royale is about as close to a dream destination for paddlers as you can get. It’s a nook and cranny wilderness of islands, hidden coves, and undisturbed lakes. Also Ryan Island on Isle Royale’s Siskiwit Lake is the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest freshwater lake in the world. Visitors may also scour the beaches of Isle Royale and they may discover the greenstone. The greenstone is a lustrous pebble with distinctive segmented turtle shell pattern. More properly called chlorastrolite, and it was formed in the gas cavities of lava flows.
In 1972, the governor of Michigan declared the stone as the official state gem. Visitors to the park need to know the pets are not allowed on boats or within park boundaries. Park boundaries extend 4. 5 miles into Lake Superior. The Isle Royal National Park allows their visitors to free naturalist-led nature walks, and evening programs. The national park also has 36 backcountry camping areas and they are on 1-day to 5-day limit passes. Camping is allowed from mid-April through October and they are first come, first served.
Also 17 of the camping areas permit group camping. Isle Royale is a true hidden gem and perhaps this is why Michigan’s state gemstone is named after the remote island. It is the only known place where wolves and moose live together without bears. The Isle Royale is a perfect haven for visitors who enjoy the wilderness. The island offers many activities such as boat tours, backpacking, paddling, and camping. To the visitor that wants a true national park without the crowds (or bears), they should pack up and head to the Isle Royale National Park.