Isle Royale a quiet island of mystery, wonder and challenges

Bob Downing / Akron Beacon Journal /

ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK, Mich. — The Greenstone Trail is the No. 1 hiking trail on this wilderness island in Lake Superior.

The trail stretches 42.2 miles on the island’s northeast flank. It is generally acknowledged as one of the top wilderness hikes in the Midwest, the main hiking thoroughfare on this rocky, wild North Woods island.

The park, 55 miles off the Michigan coast, offers 165 miles of trails that appeal to backpackers and hikers. Paddlers also love Isle Royale.

But the trails and paddling aren’t the biggest attractions. Those are the island’s gray wolves and moose.

The wolves are in real trouble and could die out in the coming years. The number of wolves on Isle Royale has dropped to nine, and only one is known to be a female. It’s the lowest number in more than 50 years on Isle Royale.

Tough questions

That population decline has raised major concerns among wolf researchers, including John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson of Michigan Tech University.

The National Park Service is beginning to wrestle with a tough decision: Should the agency preempt nature and bring in new wolves to replenish the pack, or stick with its long-standing hands-off philosophy, even if that means the extinction of the pack? If that happens, should wolves then be returned to the island by man to benefit the ecosystem? The agency has perhaps seven to 10 years to determine which route it will take.

Scientists have been studying the relationship between the predator wolves and their prey on Isle Royale since 1958. A shortage of females has reduced the birth rate. Disease and a dropoff in moose numbers due to global warming is having a big impact. Wolves also attack each other.

Three wolves were drowned in an unexplained accident in an abandoned water-filled mine shaft in late 2011 or early 2012. The hope is that a wolf pair at the western end of the island will produce female pups to boost the population.

The first wolves came to the island in 1948-49 by crossing frozen Lake Superior. The Canada mainland is 18 miles away. Moose had arrived on the island earlier, about 1900.

The island’s moose population grew from 515 in 2011 to about 750 in 2012. In the past 10 years, those numbers had dropped by 50 percent, due largely to warmer temperatures and ticks that weaken and stress the moose. Moose make up 90 percent of the wolves’ diet. Wolves kill a moose for food every four to 10 days.

Scientists typically spend seven weeks on the island each winter, monitoring the wolves and moose by air. They also track the wolves in the summer.

Visiting the island

They collect all moose bones found on the island. Those bones sit on wooden planks outside a small cottage where Peterson and his wife, Candy, live.

It is a strange sight to come across hundreds of moose skulls, femurs and jaws in a clearing in the woods. I stumbled across the graveyard on a visit a few years ago, a spooky shrine to the moose.

The island’s wolves are rarely seen. But visitors to Isle Royale treasure their presence and hope to catch a glimpse of a wolf on the trail or hear them howl at night.

Visitors also want to see moose, which is more likely to happen. You may see them anywhere along the Greenstone, along with wolf droppings and tracks.

The Greenstone offers solitude and up-high views of Isle Royale and 450 surrounding islands. It features wooded glades, sunny meadows brimming with blueberries, raspberries and thimbleberries, and exposed ridges that may be 15 degrees hotter than forested trails. It skirts inland lakes, and much of the trail is forested.

The National Park Service recommends three to five days to make the moderate hike with a few tough spots.

Some of the best vistas are from the high points along the Greenstone: Mount Franklin, Lookout Louise and Mount Ojibway with its fire tower. You are up to 790 feet above Lake Superior.

Most of the campsites along the Greenstone are off the main ridge and on connecting trails. The Greenstone connects with most of the trails on the island, making numerous loop options available.

Isle Royale is not for everyone and it’s not easy to visit. The park covers 133,781 acres of land and 438,009 acres of water. It typically gets about 17,000 visitors a year, most in July, August and September. It is one of America’s least-visited national parks and reportedly one of the quietest.

It sits on an island that is 45 miles long and up to nime miles wide. It features 46 inland lakes, bald eagles, quiet coves, rocky shorelines, boreal forests, bogs, loons and lots of summer wildflowers.

The Ojibwas called the island Minong or “a good place.”

It has a rich history with copper mining, lighthouses, shipping, fishing, lumbering and vacationing. Sites include the white Rock Harbor Lighthouse that dates to 1855 and the nearby Edisen Fishery, a small family-run commercial fishing camp.

Getting there

There are few signs of man on the island, no roads and no vehicles. The only transportation is by foot, boat and seaplane.

Visitors must invest time, money and effort to get to Isle Royale. Copper Harbor, one of the ferry ports, is a 15-hour drive from Akron.

The ferry ride from Copper Harbor takes at least three hours 15 minutes. It is longer from other Lake Superior ports in Michigan and Minnesota. That crossing is easy when the lake is calm, but at other times, it can be very rough.

You will pay from $50 to $67 for a one-way ticket. A round-trip flight via a seaplane is $299, with baggage weight limits.

The park is open from mid-April to October, but the ferries and the small lodge at Rock Harbor run shorter seasons.

Reservations for lodging and ferry spots must be booked months in advance. No reservations are accepted for camping, but permits are required.

The typical visitor spends four days on the island, not surprising after the logistical effort required. It gets a large number of return visitors.

Most visitors head off to backpack on the island’s trails. Those staying at the lodge can do short day hikes and the park’s concessionaire, Forever Resorts, offers boat cruises and tours. Park visitors pay a $4 per day fee.

For more information, contact Isle Royale National Park, 906-482-0984, isro.

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