In 1872, the Reverend George Grant wrote, "those who have never seen Superior get an inadequate, even inaccurate idea by hearing it spoken of as a lake. Superior is a sea; it breeds storms and rain and fogs, like a sea; it is cold, wild, masterful and dreaded." It is against this backdrop that the two of us set about on our 110 mile circumnavigation by sea kayak of Isle Royale, an island 45 miles long and 9 miles wide that is located in the northwest portion of Lake Superior within 22 miles of the Minnesota/Ontario shore.
Ninety-nine percent of Isle Royale is uninhabited by man and has been set aside as a U.S. National Park that receives a lesser number of visitors in an entire year than those who visit Yellowstone within a single day! Many of the visitors that arrive at this island are paddlers like us or backpackers and fisherman. There are more than 165 miles of trails that criss-cross the island, 36 primitive campgrounds scattered throughout, and abundant salmon or lake trout off shore and northern pike, perch, and walleye fishing on its many inland lakes. Isle Royale has also been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve in the United Nations' Man and The Biosphere Program. The island's only true year-round inhabitants are 900 moose and 19 wolves. The moose are commonly found feeding along the shores of the island's many inland lakes or seen loping along the Superior shoreline. However, the wolves are much more elusive and wary of humans. The only indication of the wolf's presence on the island that most visitors come across is limited to their footprints and scat.
Our journey began in Memphis where we loaded our kayaks onto Mike's Trooper and drove the 1,250 miles to Grand Portage, MN, just a few miles south of the Canadian border. Here we boarded a small ferry for the short three hour trip to Isle Royale's western port of Windigo, located inside of Washington Harbor. Due to our late afternoon start from Windigo and a 20 knot westerly on our nose, we paddled the short distance to the entrance of the harbor and set up camp in one of the two shelters located on Grace Island at the harbor's mouth. We shared the campsite with three groups of fishermen two of whom approached our shelter, introduced themselves and welcomed our arrival to Isle Royale with plates loaded with freshly caught and cooked Lake Trout and Salmon.
We awoke at 5:30 a.m., quietly loaded the gear into the boats and slipped into the water so as not to disturb our new found, but sleeping friends. The 10-15 mph winds were out of the west this morning, so we elected to do a clockwise circumnavigation beginning with the notorious north shore. Within an hour we had paddled the five miles to Huginnin Cove with the 2-3 foot seas hitting us square on the beam for most of the distance. This was a good spot to take a short rest since we would soon be paddling a stretch of shore that would not permit us the luxury of a rest stop. Once we were safely tucked away inside the protected cove we took a Cliff Bar break and shouted a "good morning" to the backpackers who were beginning to rise and emerge from their tents to the crisp and clear morning. We both agreed that if we ever returned to these waters again that Huginnin Cove would be a terrific location to stop at and set up camp for the night.
Paddlers who visit the park are cautioned about traveling beyond this point and venturing from Huginnin Cove towards Little Todd Harbor, a distance of 13 miles because of the absence of beaches or coves. This presents a serious hazard to the paddler who is looking for a safe place to land and seek shelter from the chilly Lake Superior waters in the event of a problem or foul weather. Even as late as August, the surface temperature of the water is but 62 degrees, and one has only to go down a few feet to find temps in the lower 50's. This clearly is not the kind of water that one enters without a wetsuit or drysuit for any length of time for fear of hypothermia, followed by the loss of consciousness and drowning.
We began paddling northeast along this rugged coast and were reminded of its dangers by the sight of a shear rock wall that ranged from a low of 6 feet and climbed upwards of 60 feet. Large boulders and rock slabs were visible in the water along the face of this wall. The 1-3 foot seas were now aft and to our port, and each roller gave us a gentle nudge towards our destination of Little Todd Harbor. Due to the angle of the waves striking the shore we did not have to contend with clapotis or reflection waves.
This trip had been planned, in part, as preparation for a 250 mile race in Florida that I had registered to compete in come March, 2002. I wore a heart rate monitor to help maintain a steady marathon cadence designed to keep my heart rate low so that upwards of 40 miles could be paddled per day in this upcoming race without depleting all my carbohydrate reserves. However, as I glanced at the hostile shore to my right, the waves approaching from my left, and listened to the constant roar of waves crashing against the rocks my heart rate began reacting to the stress. I glanced at the monitor and it indicated 128 bpm an increase from my target of 116 bpm with little significant increase in speed! However, we safely reached Little Todd Harbor by noon and were delighted to find that we were the only occupants of the two campsites, surrounded by a thick stand of white birch and located on a bluff overlooking the harbor.
The following morning the winds remained out of the west as we paddled towards McCargo Cove and the scenic Five Fingers area comprising the eastern portion of the island. As we left the placid waters of the Little Todd Harbor behind, we encountered the same wind and wave conditions experienced yesterday. We paddled along a shoreline where the waves still pounded against a shear rock face, but there was also a scattering of beaches and coves present that one could duck into should needs dictate. As the morning evolved into midday, the winds freshened and the waves steepened in the open waters near the mouth of McCargo Cove. It is in these waters that Mike encountered the first paddler we would meet since leaving Windigo, a solo paddler who was completing his circumnavigation in the opposite direction. Shortly after parting company with the solo kayaker, Mike passed three open canoes leaving McCargo Cove that were venturing into the open Superior waters as they presumably headed towards Amygdaloid Channel. Having spent the better part of two days paddling in these large waves, Mike pondered as to why anyone would be paddling an open canoe into these conditions?
It was a little after lunch when we arrived at the Pickerel Cove campsite and discovered that we were again being rewarded with having both tent sites to ourselves. Unlike many of the other campsites on the island, no hiking trails reach this secluded vista overlooking Herring Bay and Pickerel Cove and thus one does not have to compete with backpackers for a tent site. There is also a short portage linking these two bodies of water nearby where we landed our boats. As we were unloading our gear we saw the three canoes Mike saw earlier heading in our direction. Approaching us, the two adults accompanying the four teenagers looked a bit haggard from their blue-water experience. They indicated that they had earlier missed their turn into Herring Bay and, instead, found themselves paddling in some rather dicey waters. I asked them what chart they were using and one of the fathers' produced a wadded up piece of paper 2x6 inches in size. Wow, it is absolutely amazing how ill prepared some people can be when exploring wilderness areas such as this. Careful planning can do so much to offer the adventurer an enjoyable and exciting holiday versus the potential for tragic disaster that awaits those who fail to prepare. We shared our charts with the two adults so they had a mental image of the route they were to follow to their destination to supplement the little wadded up piece of paper. We retired that evening to a night-long serenade offered by the cove's resident loons.
Morning broke with a solid overcast and a sprinkling of rain. Today we planned to paddle through the Five Fingers area before making our assault on Blake Point at the eastern most tip of Isle Royale. This area is noted for its treacherous and unpredictable waters due to its open eastern exposure to all that Lake Superior has to offer. We began paddling through the protected waters of Amygdaloid Channel where we saw a tandem kayak in the distance crossing the channel to our port. This is the last kayak we would see during our circumnavigation. We never approached close enough to exchange greetings with the paddlers, but their heading suggested that a pass not visible on our charts must be present in the landmass to our starboard that separated Amygdaloid Channel from Robinson Bay. We located the narrow pass and found ourselves paddling in some of the most beautiful waters we had dipped a paddle in since arriving on Isle Royale. Although white birch, Aspen and other hardwoods were still present, so were an increasing number of various evergreens. The rocks at the water's edge were covered with lichen in various shades of green and gold and the water remained as crystal clear as ever. You could literally see rocks on the floor of these waters 30 . . . 40 . . . even 50 feet below the water's surface!
Excerpt from Michael's Journal -
It was a hard paddle with waves off our forward port and rebounding waves seemingly everywhere. Once we passed Locke Point it was an all-out-slug to gain ground. Every stroke was a beg for purchase. I've never paddled 24 miles at on time in my life, with 11 miles behind me I am trying to paddle up hill with more strokes per hour than I knew I had. Grant is ahead of me and I would him disappear in the troughs of the larger waves. From Locke Point to Blake Point was 3 miles and took almost an hour, but seemed like 10 miles and 3 hours. I was exhausted when we go there but was elated to have don it without capsizing or worse.
After about 8 miles of pastoral paddling, not too unlike the conditions found in the boundary waters west of us on the Minnesota/Canadian mainland, we entered the more turbulent waters of Five Finger Bay as we rounded Hill Point and make for Locke and Blake Points. The morning forecast on N.O.A.A. weather radio promised that the west winds were to have clocked during the night and to expect 10-20 knot winds out of the SW. We figured that these conditions would offer us a favorable window for rounding Blake Point. However, the winds could still be felt on the back of our left shoulders, suggesting continued westerlies. We began taking a real pounding from the waves coming at us from the NNE despite the west wind as we inched along the coast to Locke Point. It should be noted that the two of us are experienced paddlers and that we paddle together anywhere from 24- 40 miles a week. That said, the currents, towboats wakes and eddies found on the Mississippi River offered us little preparation for the conditions we were to about to experience. We dropped in behind Locke Point for a quick squirt of energy gel . . . an obligatory Cliff Bar . . . and a mutual exchange of reassurance before plunging forward into the waves towards Blake Point. The wind remained on our backs, but we were now fighting 3-5 foot seas off our port bow. It has been suggested that there is no such thing as an atheist in a fox-hole and I quickly concluded that this held true for paddlers in waters like these as well. Stroke, brace, stroke, brace . . . brace, stroke . . . brace! Mike was only a short distance behind me, but it was impossible to glance over my shoulder to gauge his progress because of the difficulty in maintaining stability without devoting full attention to what was occurring around me. I remained 1/2 mile off shore because of the clapitos bouncing back and making for really confused seas. It was so crazy in this water that it was even impossible to divert one's attention from paddling and wave monitoring long enough to take a quick drink of water from the dromedary bag's hose/bite valve threaded through the PFD. The five footers arrived in a series of three waves followed by a brief respite of seven or eight smaller waves before returning with almost predictable precision. My right hand began going numb because I was gripping the paddle so tightly. I figured I must have left indentations on the paddle's shaft where I had been grasping it with a vice-like grip. In less than 30 minutes (despite seeming more like an hour) it's all over and we had both safely rounded Blake Point. We paddled in calm waters once again and headed for Merritt Lane campground for a quick lunch and a short break before pressing on.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent paddling SW along the southern shore through Tobin and Rock Harbor until arriving 24.2 miles later at our destination at West Caribou Island. There was a dock at this site with one couple in a cruiser from Houghton, MI and one of two shelters occupied by a couple of college aged kids who were spending their days fishing. We settled into the unoccupied shelter, spread our wet things out on a picnic table to dry and asked the fellow on the cruiser if he would kindly place a couple cans of beer we had brought along for the occasion into his ice chest. That evening, Mike and I toasted a benevolent Neptune and enjoyed all that this super campsite had to offer.
I was awakened from a deep sleep at 5:30 a.m. by Mike's shouting and a racket coming from outside our screened-in shelter. Mike said, "it's a fox on the picnic table trying to steal the water filter!" Here we were . . . the dawn barely breaking and we're chasing a pesky camp fox away from the few things that we failed to bring in the night before. The fox was tame, accustomed to humans and looking for a handout. We ignored his pleas for food and instead took a few photos of him roaming the area outside our shelter. However, it did not take long to realize that the paddling shoes I had left on the boat to dry the night before were no longer there. Fox thief! We began walking the grounds in search of the shoes and fortuitously Mike found them within 10 feet of one another in the woods beyond our shelter. A lesson learned in being certain that everything is safely tucked away each night before turning in on Isle Royale.
Our paddle to Malone Bay along the southern shore would be shorter than yesterday and we were on the water by 7:30. As we made our way around Saginaw Point, we gazed at the limitless expanse of the open lake to our port and enjoyed the reward of paddling undisturbed by the 10-15 kt westerlies in the protected shadow of the island's lee. We stopped at Greenstone Beach, walked the shore, and searched for agates - small, colorful stones whose surface had been worn smooth by a millennium of wind and waves. We also came across the fresh hoof prints of moose that had walked on this beach hours earlier and beside these hoof prints . . . the smaller, distinct, and just as fresh tracks of a stalking wolf.
We had to carefully navigate our way into Malone Bay once we reached Schooner Island due to the multitude of shallows and shoals that obstructed the passage of even a kayak whose draft is measured in mere inches. Unlike the mostly stone or small pebble beaches we had ventured upon through most of our journey thus far, Malone Bay is a beach that is almost sand-like with smaller rock granules about one quarter the size of a coffee bean. A beach like this makes getting your boat into the water easy and fun. After stowing one's gear, we simply got into the cockpit, secured the spray deck and with the paddle spanning the now covered cockpit . . . pushed off the embankment by hand and let the small stones act as ball bearings beneath the hull for a short roller-coaster ride into the water.
Malone Bay was an "okay" campground larger than the others we had visited because it served as a canoe portage into Siskiwit Lake (the largest lake on the largest island located on the largest freshwater lake in the world) and the other smaller inland lakes on the isle. The Voyager, another ferry that circumnavigates the island three times a week also disembarked/embarked passengers at this spot and thus there was more activity here than either of us preferred. There were other campgrounds located nearby such as the more isolated Hay Bay site that we would probably have used if we had had the opportunity to do things over again.
Mike insisted upon an early wake up call out of the sack by 5:30 and into the water by 6:30. Winds were expected to shift to the SW today, and Mike preferred that we cross the open waters of Siskiwit Bay in the early a.m., before the wind and waves started building as the day began to warm. It was a 5.5 mile open water paddle from Wright Island to Point Houghton. As we approached the point, we watched a drifting fog bank briefly shroud the spit of land before moving along on its eastward trek. We rounded Point Houghton and proceeded along the southern shore which would now be absent of campgrounds until we reached our final destination of Washington Harbor. We paused at Attwood Beach to stretch our legs, take a few photos, pick up a couple more agates and erect a small cairn along the shore to memorialize our short visit . . . a structure that would surely disappear with the next storm out of the east. After nearly 20 miles we arrived at the day's destination of Long Point. We received the needed permits (free) from the National Park Service for backcountry camping when we first arrived on Isle Royale and selected a tent site 100 feet from the water as prescribed by the rules. We then picked up the boats and carried them off the beach so they would not be visible from the water. This was another NPS requirement designed to maintain the natural visual setting of the island for those cruising off shore in larger boats or paddling closer to shore in kayaks.
Thunderstorms and a low pressure system made it look like someone was pissed. I was surprised at how high the swells were so early, the wind was strong and it was already raining the clouds seemed to make it impossible for God to see us in case we needed help a real possibility today. We had to go way off shore at the points because of the boulders and shoals which make the conditions treacherous. The seas mounded into the highest waves we had seen. At first they broke on boulders and shore only, but then they began to crest and break out where we were paddling, adding immanent danger to an already scary situation. I got caught by a wave that tossed me up and broke just as I reached its peak. I could do nothing to affect my direction. It spun me 180 degrees and I found myself returning from where I had just been. Unlike the north side, these were ocean-like waves they had power! My strategy was to turn into the waves that seemed ready to break near me. But, at times with full rudder and paddling on one side with all my might I remained unable to avoid a slam. Several times all I could do was ride and brace, then paddle like a fiend in between to make headway.
N.O.A.A. was calling for thunderstorms this evening so we ate our dinner while seated on campstools on the large rocks of the point that faced Lake Superior. We watched the storm clouds and rain to the south as they traveled from Grand Marais on the mainland and passed over the waters of Western Lake Superior. As darkness fell, the roof of the tent was illuminated for hours by the constant flash of lightening as the air filled with the clamor of thunder, the howling of wind, the beating of rain and the constant crashing of waves on the nearby rocky shore. By morning we had pretty lively seas to contend with due to the constant SW winds of the past 36 hours combined with the effect of the past evening's thunderstorms. Mike launched about 15 minutes ahead of me and rounded Long Point well before I entered the water. I rounded the point about a mile behind Mike and despite a brisk cadence, found it difficult to get a visual on him due to the heavy seas. We were about to learn that our experience on Blake Point two days earlier was meant to better prepare us for what we were about to encounter over the next hour.
We have both sailed extensively and are aware of the difficulty in gauging wave height from a boat especially when you are sitting so low in the water as in a kayak. However, when I surfed down the back side of a breaking roller, saw nothing but roiling water in the trough ahead, and could see only green above me as the next roller was preparing to break from above, there was little doubt that we had found 5 foot and possibly even 6 foot seas. We continued paddling, but our minds independently arrived at the same conclusion . . . why were we out here in this stuff? Despite paddling nearly 1/2 mile off shore to minimize the effects of the reflection waves, we could see the rollers breaking further out as they hit the shallows extending well off the various points of land. Our paddling skills were being tested to their limit as Lake Superior toyed with us. As each swell or roller began its pass beneath our boats from almost abeam, one first dug the paddle into the face of the approaching wave, elevated to the top of the roller, and then powered down with a paddle stroke into the top or backside of the passing wave. The rollers despite their difficulty were far more manageable than the breaking waves, which tended to be steeper and contain much more destructive power. I found myself scrutinizing the waters well ahead and to my left for any sign of the breaking waves that typically traveled in pairs or triplets as experienced at Blake Point. Each time I spotted a roller appearing ready to break I would maneuver the boat into a position to either (1) scoot ahead of it, (2) fall back behind it, or (3) turn into it to minimize the possibility of getting broached.
Although there were beaches along much of the southern coast in this area, the points were still no place for an emergency landing. They were typically cliffs at worst or a collection of large slabs of rock and boulders at best. We received a brief reprieve after rounding The Head only to encounter similar conditions once again as we approached Rainbow Point. It became abundantly clear that our survival required us to swallow our pride and head for the beach of Rainbow Cove in light of the fact that white caps could be seen mounding well beyond Cumberland Point ahead of us in a fearsome display of brute force. Furthermore, despite our being only 7.4 miles short of our final destination, there would be no protected waters beyond Cumberland Point with which to recover from the bashing we could surely expect while rounding the point. We paddled to the western end of Rainbow Cove hoping to find a hospitable place to beach, but there was no protection from the pounding surf. We were paddling light-weight Kevlar boats and it is simply went against nature to direct them towards a shore littered with breaking waves and chased by rollers that would surely drive the bow into the sand as if it were a tent stake. I suggested that we paddle around for a bit and wait things out, but Mike said we were both soaked-to-the-bone from the rain and waves, chilled, and that we had no choice but to head for shore. Interestingly, Mike made what would appear to be a difficult landing look quite simple and effortless as he surfed up to the beach and exited the boat before the next following wave struck from behind. I followed suit and had the benefit of Mike's helping hands as he grabbed my bow while I ripped the spray deck from the cockpit and jumped out of the boat and into the shallow water without mishap. Wet and tired, we stripped off our PFD's and wet shirts, put on dry ones and pulled on Gore-Tex rain jackets. Despite the constant rain and wind we were most comfortable and warm. But, we were also prisoners of an uncooperative Superior, on a desolate beach, and 7.4 miles short of our destination. We were so close and yet, so far away from our ultimate goal.
Optimistic that the boisterous seas would quiet in time so that we could continue our journey, we pulled our boats well above the storm surge, but left all our gear securely packed on board. Mike commented, "look at all the moose tracks." My response was, "you mean like those produced by that moose over there?" I pointed east up the beach at a bull moose with a full rack walking our way from a distance of about 150 yards. It did not take long for him to catch our scent and amble off into the woods. We then set off on a 4.5 mile hike of our own that would take us to the east end of the cove as we scouted for agates. We then backtracked west and picked up a trail that led us north to Feldtmann Lake, collecting wild raspberries as we trekked through the backwoods, and eventually returning to the boats. However, there was no sign that the seas planned to calm anytime soon despite three hours having passed since our initial landing. I'm bummed because Lake Superior has become an ungracious host and has rudely interrupted our timetable. I procrastinated in pulling the tent out of the boat and declared to anyone willing to listen (poor Mike) that I was not even interested in dinner and, preferred instead, to spend the late afternoon hours reading. Star Swift's recent article describing her circumnavigation of Lake Superior (Sea Kayaker, October/2001) offers valuable insight on a similar situation she experienced and the advice tendered to her by a paddling companion. This friend suggested that when one's trip is disrupted by unfriendly weather that it is important to be less concerned about going from one point to another and instead focus on everything that surrounds you, not just the water, but the people, the land and the environment as a whole. Swift concluded by quoting another acquaintance who suggested, "you will remember this trip for the rest of your life . . . it isn't how many miles that you will remember . . . it's what you learned to feel and see along the way." How insightful these words of wisdom truly are.
Mike was out of the sack by 4:00 in the a.m., munching on cold oatmeal and packing up his gear! The water had finally settled down a bit, N.O.A.A. forecasted a NW wind today and Mike was determined to exit this place while the going was good. I pulled myself out of my bag within the hour, swatted mosquitoes, broke camp and stowed my gear in the boat. We were both in the water by 6:00 and made for Cumberland Point and our final destination of Windigo lying just 7.4 miles away. The rollers of yesterday remained on the lake, but they were fewer in number and far tamer than they were 18 hours earlier. We rounded Cumberland Point in the rainy overcast of our last day on the lake and began singing and talking in anxious anticipation of the first meal we planned to order upon returning to the mainland after a week of dehydrated what-ever-you-call-it. Will it be a juicy steak? A greasy hamburger and french fries? All such talk lost its relevance however in the raw beauty of this place in which we were paddling as we rounded Card Point and entered Washington Harbor for the final homeward stretch. A total of 109.3 miles had now passed beneath the keels of our boats since our circumnavigation began less than a week earlier a journey rich with the memories of wildlife; white birch and pine; tranquil bays and pounding waves; intense physical workouts; clear but, cool water; and, most of all, the friendship of another person with whom to share all the elements of this grand adventure.
Michael Holliday was tragically killed in an automobile accident August 31, 2001, two weeks after we returned from Isle Royale and on the day the two of us finished the final draft of this story. I will miss you forever my good friend!
The authors would like to acknowledge the generous contributions extended by John & Ann Mahon and John Craun who each shared the insight and the valuable local knowledge gained from their own circumnavigation of Isle Royale. Additional information on Isle Royale can be found on the Internet at www.nps.gov/isro, or on paddling these waters by emailing Grant at email@example.com.
Michael E. Holliday and Grant H. Fenner, 2001
- Trip Duration: Extended Trip
- Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
- Skill Level: Advanced
- Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water