Isle Royale is an island in Lake Superior, about 45 miles long and 9 miles wide at its widest point. It can only be accessed via private boat or seaplane. There are 2 points of entry and the one closest to the Minnesota mainland is Windigo which offers a visitor center, campground and a small general store. A private operator runs a daily ferry service from the Grand Portage marina departing at 8:30 am and returning at 2:30 pm. The journey takes 90 minutes in each direction. This limits the duration of a day visit to about 3:30 hours. Of course, those who opt to camp can do so and stay several days exploring the park’s many hiking trails.
The passengers on the Seahunter III boat were all seasoned National Park visitors. Our impressive tally of 40+ national parks that normally have most people wide eyed in admiration (wow, you are nature lovers!), envy (when do you get the time?) or bewilderment (don’t you do anything fun like sitting on a beach with a drink?) only elicited indulgent smiles from veterans whose count were in the high 50s. There was a woman who said that she would only have American Samoa remaining after these 2 parks this holiday weekend. This doubling up of Isle Royale and Voyageurs is obviously a preferred modus operandi among many folk and not something we should file a patent for. What does this say about parks like Isle Royale (and its Minnesotan cousin, Voyageur)? These are the parks that mostly figure in the travel plans of completists. Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are not exactly parks that you casually stumble upon on a random weekend jaunt, but those parks get massive visitor counts every year. We are talking about 10+ million every year for Great Smoky Mountains and about 15,000 for Isle Royale.
Suitably chastened at being put in our place by these national park nazis (when do they get the time?) we disembarked at Windigo at 10 am on a warm day (80 degrees) and were welcomed by 2 park rangers, one for day trippers and the other for overnight sleepers. We were given the option of exploring the parks ourselves or join the ranger for an hour’s tour to begin with and then a talk later in the afternoon just before the departure of the boat. In fact, joining the talk (even if not at the beginning) is a good way to make sure you do not miss the departure.
All the research we had done on Isle Royale had not revealed to us why it deserves to be in the hallowed company of the 59 US National Parks. Apart from having favorites, we also entertain very bigoted views on which of the parks are totally undeserving of being in the club. We were curious to find out how these 2 parks will fare in our estimation.
There was nothing about the history of the park that justified national park status which it achieved in 1940. Mining, fishing, lighthouses, shipwrecks etc. figure in its human history, as against very interesting tussle between wolves (a pair crossed the ice bridge in winter a century ago) and moose over the decades, their respective populations oscillating up and down depending on several factors. Wolves are now down to 2 due to inbreeding and moose in the hundreds. Like elephants, moose have the capacity to alter landscapes with their foraging. The guided walk featured a walk through the “moose exclosure”, a fenced and gated area that keeps moose off. The exclosure had a remarkably dense vegetation and we learned to identify various botanical species - wild raspberry, thimbleberry, Canada dogwood (bunchberry), Artist’s Conk, Blue-bead lily etc. (who said we don’t do anything fun?) and it demonstrated how the presence of moose can make a difference to the vegetation. After the walk, we enquired about the best places to go moose watching and spent the rest of our spare time exploring the creekside camping sites to watch for thirsty moose at watering holes on this warm day. No score.
The ranger talk attempted to answer our burning question. Why is Isle Royale a national park? Don’t get us wrong, it is a pleasant place with nice forested trails and quiet contemplative campsites by the creek and surrounded all around by a big lake. Here are 7 key ideas that form the answer: Isolation, Wilderness, Scenic beauty, Geology, Diverse plant life, Recreation and Moose(!). The fascinating story of Isle Royale wolves and moose is detailed here.
We also had some other questions for the ranger. How did she get this job? How long does she get to live on the island? What does she do when the park is closed in the winter? The answer to the first question was interesting. There is no common entrance exam for all the national parks. You apply to an individual park for a park ranger position.
On our way back, the captain paused outside the Rock of Ages Lighthouse to look at the historic structure and the cormorants on nearby rocks.
All sorts of random thoughts to comment on
- Having a princely total of zero in my tally of your national parks, I salute ye Park Nazis (borrowing your own term).
- I learnt of a new species - Completists
- Ditto on learning about thimbleberry, bunchberry,.... You had one heck of a fun time !
Why Oh Why a lookout for a thirsty moose ?
- Much interested in your "bigoted" views on which of the 59 don't deserve to be there ! From , on Oct 29, 2016 at 01:25PM
@Ramesh - We will be expounding on our NP bigotry in great detail on our next trip report that is coming soon. Please watch this space. From, on Nov 7, 2016 at 06:58PM