Thursday, October 8, 2009

Isle Royale National Park: Least visited but most popular

More people are likely to visit Yellowstone in a day than will travel to Isle Royale in a year, yet this "little park that can" has the longest "stay rates" - 5.4 days - of any other national park and 25 percent repeat visitors.

The expected uptick in visitors to national parks following Ken Burns' breath-taking PBS series probably won't change those percentages.

Isle Royale, the largest of the 400-island archipelago at the upper end of Lake Superior, is about as isolated as you can get in the lower 48.
 - It's part of Michigan but closer to Minnesota and Canada than the Upper Peninsula.
 - The only way to reach it is by boat or sea plane.
 - And the only time you can do that is between mid April and the end of October. Transportation is very limited until mid-May through Labor Day; high season is July 15-August 15.

There are other potential drawbacks.
 - No TV
 - No cell phone service
 - No newspapers
 - No roads or cars: it's your feet or a boat.

There are moose, wolves, fox, squirrels, loons, lots of birds, even more mosquitoes and 32 different kinds of orchids (most you'll need very sharp eyes to spot).

So what do you do during the 16-17 hours of daylight?

If you're reading this you probably won't want to spend all day hiking to a remote campsite as most visitors do, but there are kayaks, boat tours and excursions, ranger talks, fishing, shorter forays into the wilderness and kicking back to let the haunting sounds of the loons lull you to sleep as you listen for the real call of the wild, wolves.

Tip: Elevation changes are relatively small but you don't find a lot of dirt underfoot; it's mostly rocks and roots. On your first foray onto a trail make finding a walking stick your immediate priority. Given upper Michigan's harsh winters, good, windfall candidates should be easy to find.

I went over via the Isle Royale Line from Copper Harbor, a pleasant, three-hour trip. Boats also connect the park from Houghton, Michigan and Grand Portage, Minnesota.

You can take the line over first thing in the morning and return that afternoon, but if you can, spend the night. There's a motel-like lodge at Rock Harbor, the larger of two visitor drop-off spots, that is comfortable.

Tip: Rooms on the lower level have a continuous deck you can sit on and watch the sun set and, if you stay up late, the moon rise. If you like sipping an adult beverage while you do this, bring it with you. Beer and wine are available only by the glass in the dining room.

There are some fun boat trips to surrounding areas. My favorite was to the old Edisen Fishery, up to the 1855 Rock Harbor Lighthouse - now an interesting and informal museum, then farther up to the moose boneyard outside the cabin of Rolf and Candy Peterson who have conducted the longest study of a predator, the wolf, and its prey, moose.You count dead moose by the bones found and they have an amazing collection.

Tip: It isn't that steep but the paths are very rocky and rooty. You'll need a walking stick and sturdy shoes. Worth it though. Not worth it is the really steep climb from the water to the 1881 lighthouse on Passage Island.

You might spot moose feeding in the spruce bog if you take a twilight excursion to Raspberry Island, but also take LOTS of bug spray; mosquitoes are fierce.

As a travel on the leveler, this isn't the kind of park I was likely to seek out but when the opportunity arose I went and am glad I did. In writing this I feel again that wonderful sense of inner peace and relaxation wilderness engenders.

And heaven knows, Isle Royale National Park is wilderness - 99 percent worth.


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