North Shore of Isle Royale National Park, MI
Isle Royale is the only island park of the NPS. The island is 45 miles long, 8 miles wide and is located in the northwest corner of Lake Superior. The Park is managed as a wilderness area and usage limitations are restrictive. Only about 15,000 people visit the park annually which is open from early May until late September. Isle Royale is a nearly perfect example of a north woods ecosystem. The island is known for its large mammal populations of around 900 moose and 19 wolves as of 2001. The island is very remote and is accessible only by ferry, sea plane or private boat.
My group consisted of myself paddling a Prijon SeaYak, My father Fred and brother Mario in a tandem Seda Explorer kayak and friend Jason in a Trinity Bay Mallard recreation kayak.
August 23rd DAY 1
This day was to be a public transportation travel day. We set out from Copper Harbor MI at 8:00 a.m. on the Isle Royale Queen III ferry. The Queen is a family operated business that I think is top notch. The captain/owner is friendly and flexible (our itinerary changed 3 times) and in my experience the boat runs very close to schedule. The cost of the ferry is about $100 round trip per person including kayak ferry. Reservations are recommended. Weather forecast called for 2-3 foot seas but we ended up getting 3-4 foot swells so the Queen, which is 110 feet long and round bottomed, was doing some pretty nice rolling. I had taken my Dramamine and was fine, but there were defiantly some passengers on the ferry that were in pretty bad shape. The ferry ride is one of the highpoints of any Isle Royale trip and steaming across Lake Superior is a real treat. We arrived right on schedule at Rock Harbor, which is the eastern operations center of Isle Royale. We unloaded and headed toward the next leg or our journey.
Tip: The NPS collects a $4 per person, per day usage fee for Isle Royale. This fee is collected on the boat by cash or check only.
After a quick orientation to the wilderness area by Ranger Eunice we headed to the small restaurant at Rock Harbor for a burger before getting on the water taxi we had reserved to get us to our starting point, McCargoe Cove. The water taxi operator seemed a little stiff and unfriendly to me at first, but he loosened up as we got underway. The water taxi costs about $85 per person to get from Rock Harbor to McCargoe Cove, which is as far as they will go. We had to break our party into 2 groups because the taxi can only take 2 kayaks at a time. The water taxi is a motorboat roughly 24 feet long. So with Kayaks loaded on top we set off around Blake Point to McCargoe Cove. The water taxi ride gave us a good chance to scout our route from the safety of a motorboat. If you've done any research on Isle Royale then you know that Blake Point, the eastern most tip of the Island, is notorious for being extremely treacherous with multi directional winds and waves converging in a fury of steep rocky shoreline.
With no safe harbors to put in to this area is a do or die for paddlers once they are committed. The alternative to paddling Blake Point is a .8-mile portage that has a 200 ft climb the Greenstone Ridge associated with it. As you will gather from this report, it was our intention to avoid this portage and get around the point. So I welcomed this opportunity to get a good look at our foe. What I saw was quite disturbing. The 3 ft swells were smashing against the rocky cliffs in walls of sea spray. Even the motorboat ride was a bit unnerving as the small boat was tossed around like a cork. I began to psychologically prepare myself to portage and made my mental notes on the terrain as we pressed on. We planned on camping at McCargoe Cove campground the first night but arrived to find the campground full of power boaters. Our taxi driver suggested we camp at Birch Island at the mouth of the cove. This ended up being a good idea, as we ended up having this small island all to ourselves and the location shaved 2 miles off of our next day's paddle. After setting up camp we paddled around the cove, exploring the bays and small islands and did a little unproductive fishing. The night involved lying on the campground dock looking at the stars.
August 24 DAY 2
While most of our route kept us paddling inside the protected waters between the barrier islands and the main land of Isle Royale, this day involved a 1 mile stretch on open Lake Superior. Fortunately the Great Lake was calm and gentle. We headed past these open waters into protected Amygdaloid Channel between Amygdaloid Island and the Robinson Peninsula. We stayed along the northern shore of the peninsula looking for a shallow 12 foot wide passage in the channel called the Keyhole which would lead us through an opening between the main island and Belle Isle, our ultimate destination. The Keyhole is large and deep enough for kayaks and canoes only. The Keyhole gave us access to Robinson Bay and eventually Belle Harbor, which was surprisingly rougher than the outside channel. The 1 foot swells and easterly winds however, were a hardly enough to slow us down and we arrived at our next camp, Belle Island Campground at about 2:00p.m. The total second day paddle was 6.5 miles. Belle Island Campground is picture perfect and we had it all to ourselves. The campground is built around a moon shaped rocky beach in a protected cove. The NPS has erected minimum impact camping shelters to use instead of tents. The shelters are basically 10x10 sheds with a screen wall front. The campground even has a community picnic shelter with a fireplace in it. After taking a short hike to the point of the small island we ended up spending the afternoon lying in the grass staring at clouds. That night involved cards by the fire and an early bedtime. Late that night I thought I heard the distant sounds of wolves. Experiencing wolf calls is eerie but was certainly one of the highlights of our trip. Belle Island campground was so serene we dubbed it the blue lagoon.
August 25th DAY 3
We had come to Isle Royale to see moose and hear wolves, and besides some old moose droppings on our short hike the day before we had seen little evidence of moose. The last time I was on the island (1999 backpacking) I had a very close encounter with a bull moose near Lane Cove campground which was right across Belle Harbor and on the way to our next destination. We decided to put into Lane Cove and do a day hike up to Mt. Franklin, one of the highest points on Isle Royale. The hike would be about 2.5 miles each way. We made the mistake of underestimating our water needs and ended up quite thirsty on our way back from Mt. Franklin. We didn't see any moose, but the hike was nice, if not a little tough. We ate lunch at Lane Cove campground and headed toward the first of 2 short portages on the map. The Lane Cove portage is .1 mile and flat. We knocked it off in no time and headed through Five Finger Bay to the Duncan Bay portage without incident. The Duncan Bay portage is .2 mile and a little less flat. It is still nothing to worry about and we put into Duncan Bay about 4:30pm. Our ultimate destination this day was Duncan Bay Narrows campground at the mouth of Duncan Bay 6.5 miles away. This campground would set-up our approach to Blake Point, which was 2.5 miles past the Narrows. We secured our campsite and engaged in an hour and a half planning and arguing session regarding our impending paddle around Blake Point. Lake Superior was calm at this time and one of the ideas on the table was to break camp immediately and hit the water. We decided against this idea because we were all exhausted and we wouldn't be able to get to the Merrit Lane campground (our next destination) until well after dark. We had observed that Lake Superior was most calm in the early morning. My brother lives on Lake Michigan and he reiterated this observation as being true there as well. We resolved ourselves to waking up early and taking our chances that the Lake would be calm enough to paddle in the morning. That night around 1a.m. a cold front moved through the area. The winds and weather whipped up Duncan Bay enough that I felt I needed to get up and pull our kayaks further onto the shore to avoid losing them to the waves. The temperature dropped an easy 10 degrees and I fell asleep after moving the boats to the foghorns heard from the lighthouse on the point, fully intending to portage in the morning. Our bet had apparently gone against us.
August 26th DAY 4
We woke at 5:50 am to a Lake Superior that was as still as a mill pond. Excitedly we quickly broke camp and started the 2.5 mile paddle to the point. In my eagerness I neglected to eat before we left and I found myself hungry and still tired from the day before. Still, opportunity was presenting itself and slowing down or stopping to eat was out of the question. While the Lake was calm now, we knew that we could turn the point to find a raging sea on the other side of the island. This thought combined with the reputation of Lake Superior to change in a moment's notice kept me paddling as fast as I could. My shoulders and arms were burning and the 2.5 miles to Blake Point seemed like an eternity. The sun was rising over the island shore line and then I realized that I had made the mistake of leaving my sunglasses in one of my dry bags. Hungry, tired and blind I pressed on. When I finally reached Blake Point I almost giggled. The point was as gentle as a lazy river. Slow moving, rolling waves bobbed my SeaYak pleasantly up and down. I relaxed, stopped paddling, and radioed Jason 1/2 a mile behind me in the recreation boat that the point was a go. Then I took a breath and just enjoyed the scene. A mammoth great lake freighter was visible 3 miles in the distance and the lighthouse foghorn beaconed good morning. This was a great day. Merrit Lane campground was another .5 miles up the coast. We pulled up to the dock, and took an ice-cold morning swim in Lake Superior. Even with our wet suits on the water was almost crippling cold, but totally exhilarating. I dove off the dock twice. We fixed a good breakfast on the dock and decided to push on to Rock Harbor a day early, after all it was only 8:15 am. With the Lake being so cooperative we decided to take the outside passage back to Rock Harbor. I can say without hesitation that this was the nicest paddle of my life. The 5.5 miles back to the harbor were calm and beautiful. The rocky shoreline of the island was gently massaged by rolling waves. Our group was spread out and I was paddling in solitude, pure heaven. We arrived at Rock Harbor to a great Superior white fish lunch. We explored staying in the NPS lodge or cabins, but for $258-$405, elected to pass. We were able to get on standby to the Queen and headed off to Copper Harbor a day early. Even though I was cheated out of planned day (we had give ourselves a weather layover day) I felt that the trip was a great success. Isle Royale is a special place, hard to get to but well worth the work.
Copper Harbor MI is the push off point for Isle Royale. It is at the tip of Keewenaw Peninsula at the very end of Rt US 41.
National Geographic Isle Royale Topo Map.