Isle Royale Remembered by Jerry Lang of Muskegon
I remember the first trip my wife and I took to Isle Royale – my favorite Michigan wilderness. There is something mysterious about this chunk of basaltic rock rubbed raw several times by glacial ice, periodically submerged by ancient lakes, historically ravaged for it’s copper ore, and once home to rugged seasonal fishermen.
As I gazed over the bow of the Ranger III at the 42-mile long island rising out the icy waters of Lake Superior, I felt the cares of the everyday world sinking into the wake behind us. A warm breeze carrying the boreal fragrance of sun-warmed balsam fir and spruce wafted over us on approach to the island. Despite an initial sunny welcome, we were fittingly ‘baptized’ into another world by a sudden summer rain shower just as we disembarked at Rock Harbor.
Being the non-avid campers we are, my wife and I were thankful for the Park Service’s Rock Harbor Lodge on the east end of Isle Royale. By staying at the lodge, we were deprived of bragging rights about enduring blisters, hiking in downpours, and being bitten by blackflies along rugged portages. But we were still imbued by the wilderness feel of the place during our daily daypack and paddle trips.
Our introductory canoe trip was to the western end of Tobin Harbor. The underwater panorama of sand, stones, sunken logs, and submerged plants changed beneath us with each silent stoke of the paddle while we slowly traveled along the wooded shoreline. We never glimpsed one of island’s resident moose nor heard a wolf howl in the distance; but the enigmatic call of nesting loons often echoed across the water.
We stopped on one of the many ‘boulder islands’ for lunch. It’s amazing how life clings to those granite rocks. Multicolored lichens covered much of the surface with bluebells, goldenrod, and even some small fir and spruce trees sprouting up in the cracks.
Our second short canoe trip took us across Rock Harbor to nearby Raspberry Island. The boardwalk through a bog on the island offered a close-up view of a variety of carnivorous ‘Little Shop of Horrors plants’ like sundews and purple pitcher plants.
As an entomology graduate student, I studied the tiny non-biting pitcher plant mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, whose closest relatives inhabit neotropical bromeliads. I’ve been known to use my wife’s turkey baster to suck water out of pitcher plant leaves looking for mosquito larvae. Luckily for my wife and the mosquitoes I had no baster handy on this trip.
While Isle Royale is an officially designated wilderness area, we were forcefully reminded that the island is surrounded by the wildness of untamed Lake Superior. We encountered gale-force winds with 14-foot high waves on the return trip to Houghton. As most of the passengers gazed up from their barf bags at the mainland shoreline, we all had a new appreciation for our smallness amidst the raw power of planet earth’s wildness encountered right here in Michigan.